Cafe Society

Club Med

Some people look forward to leaving the house and getting away from their families. At Greek restaurants, though, the whole family tends to work together.

"We're a team," says Demetrios "Jimmy the Greek" Lemonidis, who owns Thia's with his wife, Evanthia, and their children. "We've been cooking together in restaurant kitchens for more than forty years, and plus that, Greeks look at everything as a family thing." Which is what makes his two-year-old eatery an ideal place to take kids, since the atmosphere, while stylish, is comfortable and relaxed, and the dishes aren't overly spicy or rich.

Thia's is a far cry from the last place where he cooked, a ramshackle cafe named Jimmy's, which was attached to a motel and bar a few blocks down Evans from his current place. "That was sometimes a rough atmosphere," Jimmy admits. "But I still get customers in from there, sometimes requesting some of those dishes I did there, like chicken-fried steak. And I'll still do them. But this menu is much more of the traditional Greek cuisine."

And that traditional food, as well as Jimmy's trademark Greek exuberance, is why so many loyal customers have followed him to the new location. On our first visit to Thia's, Jimmy was called from the kitchen to greet customers so frequently that we couldn't believe he had any time left to cook. But that's where Evanthia comes in. "Eva's my partner," Jimmy says. "We create the dishes together."

Those dishes consist primarily of the Greek mainstays that Americans have come to know and love, such as souvlaki, moussaka, dolmades and pastitsio, as well as a few French and Italian specialties. But while we found the latter to be adequate--the fettuccine Alfredo ($7.95) was typically creamy and rich, and the baked ziti ($8.95) would do any red-sauce joint proud--the Greek dishes were better, bursting with the flavors of Mediterranean cooking: garlic, lemon, garlic, oregano, garlic, olives and, yes, more garlic.

The hummus dip ($4.95), for example, brought pureed garbanzo beans sporting copious amounts of garlic, as well as a lemon tang and the slick smoothness of olive oil; pita triangles and fresh carrots, celery and green peppers proved the optimal vehicles for delivering the dip. Just fine on its own, the hummus also proved a nice counterpoint to the vinegary hapodaki rigonata ($6.95), Thia's delectable wine-soaked octopus. We followed the appetizers with bowls of avgolemono ($2.50)--egg-yolk yellow and redolent with concentrated chicken stock--and two shots of the anise-flavored ouzo, and were ready to hop the next boat bound for the sunny islands.

Instead, we tried the cheaper method of transporting ourselves to Greece: with Jimmy's famous Hellas chicken ($9.95). A whole boneless breast had been drenched with wine and lemon juice, pelted with herbs and garlic and served over chicken-fat-enhanced rice pilaf; the bird was juicy wet, with a lemon scent that hit our nostrils long before we got our forks near our mouths. This was the kind of chicken dish that makes you feel like you never need to eat anything but this chicken dish. Except that would have meant missing Thia's great souvlaki ($8.50). Since the kitchen had been careful to prevent the pork cubes from drying out under the broiler, the lemon-doused meat retained its moist center under the rich, crisp edges. Greek coffee ($2.25)--the same brew as Turkish coffee, strong and boiled with sugar--and a few triangles of Eva's baklava ($2.50) later, we'd had a meal fit for the gods.

When we returned, we brought the kids--Thia's is a family affair, after all--and walked right into the Saturday night Greek party, a tradition Thia's sadly stopped a few weeks ago. "It just got to be too much," Jimmy says. "I'm not going to give it up completely, but people got tired of the same bands and the wall-to-wall people." On the night we were there, the place was rocking with music, ouzo-soggy diners and plenty of toasts, shouts and laughter. Needless to say, our children found it absolutely entrancing.

The party may be over, but the excellent food we sampled that night is still available. For starters, there was the saganaki ($5.25), rum-saturated kasseri cheese done flambe-style. Jimmy had breaded the cheese, which made it swell with the rum like a sponge--yum. The kids split the Hellas trio ($10.95) of spanakopita, moussaka and pastitsio, augmented with dolmades and rice pilaf. The spanakopita was obviously made by a Greek: from the side, this spinach-cheese pie looked like a novel rather than the lame, three-or-four phyllo sheet pamphlet assembled by pretenders. The moussaka was just as good as I had remembered from Jimmy's last place, a marvelous construction of potatoes, ground meat and paper-thin slices of eggplant, with a cheese-dense custard on top. And the pastitsio was sheer child's play: elbow macaroni, ground beef and lamb, cheese, tomato sauce and bechamel, all melty and smooshy and flavored with cinnamon.

Thia's offers other desserts, but our kids had loved the baklava we brought home after our first meal, so we ordered it again. The car's still sticky.

We usually stick closer to home on family nights out--which means we're forced to deal with Parker's pathetic roster of restaurants. Parker may be a national boomtown, but most of its eateries are a bust--which is why I was thrilled when a second Greek Town Cafe appeared about a year ago in "downtown" Parker. The original Greek Town, at Colfax and Fillmore in the heart of a neighborhood now officially, if grandiosely, designated as Greek Town, has been around for nearly a decade, and the Parker outpost clearly benefits from that longevity.

Denver's Greek Town Cafe is owned by Taki Dadiotis; the Parker restaurant is owned by Taki's son, Jim, and Jim's wife, Kiki. But Kiki's mother, Maria Dina, cooks at both spots, and they share a menu that features both American and Greek dishes, as well as a casual, family-friendly ambience. When I pointed out that it was unusual for two sets of in-laws to work so closely together, Kiki said, "Don't ask," and laughed. "We all live in Denver, and we all love the business, and we're just one big, happy family."

Kiki's family is about to get bigger--she's pregnant--but that doesn't stop her from doing some of the cooking at the Parker restaurant. Most of the Greek recipes came from her mother, who owned a restaurant in Greece before the Dina family moved to the States seven years ago. But the food still tastes of the Mediterranean: Mykonos-style chicken, oven-baked lamb, tender gyros.

At both Greek Towns, though, my favorite dish would have to be the hios ($7.99), small pork strips in an unbelievably rich wild-mushroom sauce that I kept scooping up with a spoon long after the meat and accompanying mashed potatoes were gone. And the moussaka ($6.75) and pastitsio ($6.75) were the best takes on those dishes I've ever tried. The moussaka was so condensed that the layers of eggplant, ground beef and potatoes had merged into one, nutmeg-spiced whole, topped with a bechamel so thick it had the consistency of a baked potato. The pastitsio featured the usual tube-shaped noodles layered with ground beef, but with an unusual tangy and flavorful tomato sauce that was far more involved than the canned sauce lazy places use. Both generous portions came with sides of potato wedges and green beans mixed with onions and carrots.

Greek Town is willing to take an extra step for many of its dishes. The dolmades dinner entree ($6.25) brought grape leaves stuffed with rice and ground beef served over mashed potatoes and draped with an avgolemono-like sauce. And you could actually taste the olive-oil-and-oregano marinade that had tenderized the souvlaki in the sandwich ($5.95), as well as diced onions, tomatoes and a goat-milk tsatsiki sauce that wasn't too heavy on the cucumber. The gyros sandwich ($5.95) featured another meat miracle: The pressed lamb and beef wasn't dried out, as it so often is, making the tsatsiki an embellishment rather than a necessity. More lamb starred in the kos ($9.95): Large hunks from a shoulder roast had been coated with what the menu accurately described as a "zesty" sauce. The word kos, pronounced "koosh," is Albanian for "soured milk," so I have a feeling that ingredient contributed to the delicious, tomato-based liquid.

The lamb took a bit longer than the other dishes we'd ordered, so while we waited, the kids began exploring the dining area, which in Parker is very casual, almost cafeteria-like. A pregnant woman, who I later learned was Kiki, came out of the kitchen to watch them, and although the place was otherwise empty, I was worried that they might be annoying. "Oh, no," she said, handing each of them a packet of crackers to munch on. "Greek families take their kids everywhere with them. Family is most important."

But good food runs a close second.

Thia's Cafe, 6495 East Evans Avenue, 757-5828. Hours: 11 a.m.-10 p.m. Sunday-Thursday, 11 a.m.-11 p.m. Saturday-Sunday.

Greek Town Cafe, 2910 East Colfax Avenue, 321-1104. the Italian FishermanHours: 6 a.m.-11 p.m. Monday-Friday; 7 a.m.-11 p.m. Saturday-Sunday.

Greek Town Cafe, 10920 South Parker Road, Parker, 840-2503. Hours: 11 a.m.-8 p.m. Monday-Thursday; 11 a.m.-9 p.m. Friday-Saturday.

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Kyle Wagner
Contact: Kyle Wagner