“Is the oktapodi any good?” I asked the server just before ordering.
He was standing behind the register at Zorba’s, the two-year-old restaurant started by the former owners of the Olympia Café. He looked at me for a moment, then responded. “Well, I hate octopus, so...”
“So you hate this?”
“Yeah. I hate it.”
I was a little taken aback, but I also admire openness in a restaurant’s staff. It’s refreshing to hear someone’s honest opinion. It made me feel like I could trust the place.
“I’ll go ahead and have the oktapodi,” I answered. What the hell? I’ve never had octopus before, but I like calamari, and a squid is pretty much just a stupider octopus, right?
When I was a lonely freshman at UNM, the nearby Olympia Café was a sanctuary. On sleeting winter evenings, I’d huddle up in a faux-leather booth and sip on thick coffee between bites of roasted chicken and Greek salad. From the kitschy ’70s-esque decor, to the bustle and shouts from the open kitchen, I loved eating in that cozy, familial atmosphere, and the low prices didn’t hurt.
A few years back, the Café was sold to new owners, and I was sad to hear it. Oh well; time’s river flows ever onward.
Then I heard a rumor: The owners of Olympia Café had been bored out of retirement and started a new restaurant. I shrugged off my meditations on mortality, grabbed my wife, and drove to the Northeast Heights to recapture my lost youth. Or at least shove some of that Olympia roasted chicken in my face.
The first thing I noticed about Zorba’s was how modern it is. In the same strip center as the Montgomery Il Vicino, Zorba’s seems to have taken a decorating page from its neighbor. The space is open, with tile floors, granite-patterned table tops and svelte wooden chairs. The second thing I noticed was that the place was spotless. For all my fond memories of the Olympia Café, the joint was never exactly sparkling. And the third thing I noticed was that my wife and I were offered a free sample of gyro meat. It’s 80 percent beef, 20 percent lamb, the woman who offered it to us said, and it was leaner than I remembered — less greasy, but just as flavorful.
Then I heard a rumor: The owners of Olympia Café had been bored out of retirement and started a new restaurant. I shrugged off my meditations on mortality, grabbed my wife, and drove to the Northeast Heights to recapture my lost youth.
After ordering, I scanned the kitchen behind the register. It was still bustling, but the faces of the cooks were all different, except — yes! I spotted the mustached man who used to shout exuberantly in a heavy Greek accent while turning gyro meat at Olympia. I’ve never spoken a word to him, but it was like seeing an old friend.
We took our seats at a window overlooking the small outdoor patio, and the appetizers arrived soon after. First up was the massive Minotaur sampler ($15.95), an expanse of food that threatened to swallow our table. The sampler features pita bread, olives and dolmathes, and four bowls to dip them into. The hummus was smooth and cool. The tzatziki, a creamy cucumber and garlic dip, lacked the sour bite that I associate with the sauce and was heavier than I expected. I asked the server about it, and he told me that Zorba’s uses sour cream for the base instead of the traditional yogurt. A third bowl held feta cheese, crumbly and aromatic. Finally, the melitzanosalata, an eggplant-based dip, was fresh, delicate and with seasoning that balanced the bitterness that usually makes me wary of eggplant dishes. I used more pita scooping that up than anything else.
We then started in on the oktapodi ($8.45) the server had warned us about. It was a pile of small purple tentacles drizzled with olive oil. Not exactly an appetizing presentation, but I suppose there’s only so much that can be done with octopus, and disguising the fact that you’re eating tentacles is probably not an option. The octopus was surprisingly tender, and the sparkle of wine vinegar with faintly peppery oil made me very happy for the first few bites. Then another flavor began to creep in, strengthening as I worked my way through the plate. The octopus’ aftertaste was exactly like canned tuna fish. I looked across the room and briefly locked eyes with the man who had taken my order. It may have been my imagination, but I thought he nodded knowingly.
My paidakía (lamb chops, $26.95) soon arrived, and they were beautiful. Four thin chops, grilled brown and speckled with pepper and spices on a bed of orzo (rice-shaped pasta that pops when chewed) with a side of salad. The aroma of the chops was too much for me to resist, and I immediately dug in. And holy god, these were the best lamb chops I have ever had. They were juicy and filled my mouth with rich flavor, enhanced by the liberal amount of pepper and mild Greek spices.
My wife had the one-quarter Greek chicken dinner ($8.25) which had originally provoked my Olympian nostalgia. It was just as good as I remembered, with slightly crispy skin, moist tender meat, flavored with herbs and spices. She had rice pilaf on the side, as well as a cup of bean soup called fasolatha ($2.95), which the server told her was the “national dish of Greece.” After tasting it, I can commend the Greek people on their choice of a representative soup. It’s made with white beans with chunks of carrot and other fresh vegetables. It was thick and hot; the brown broth savory with a muted, deep flavor. The beans were slightly firm, but gave easily when chewed. Although the flavors are wildly different, a taste of this soup gave the same kind of inner warmth as green chile stew or minestrone served in a relative’s kitchen on a winter evening.
We finished the meal and gazed, blinking, across the plate-strewn table at each other. Had we really eaten that much food?
As we left, I was satisfied that the spirit of the original Olympia Café lives on in this new location. The heart of the place remains the same, even if the name and decor has changed and the menu has expanded significantly. In fact, I’d say that almost everything I tried at Zorba’s was superior to the food that fueled my nostalgia for the old Olympia. Well, everything except the oktapodi.
But maybe I just hate octopus.