Walter Mencken 9:21 p.m., Oct. 20
Gyros, better fries, and pointing fingers at Thomas Keller
I got a tip a while back about a Greek place in the food court by the Von's on Midway Drive. It's taken me roughly forever to follow up on it, but I visited the Greek Corner Cafe the other day. I had been told it was a favorite place, despite not being anything fancy or special, and that it had excellent fries. I actually like exploring places that are beloved by people for various, often personal or idiosyncratic, reasons. It's a chance to try and isolate the "je ne sais quoi," that undefined quality that a restaurant possesses to give it an advantage in the hearts and minds of the people. The Corner gave no outward sign of grandeur, being situated at the periphery of a food court and decorated in the recognizable sky blue hue of Greek cafe's the world over.
I noticed friendly service in a place where I might have expected indifference, which was a good sign right from the get-go. Also, the place was cleaner than the charmless food court; another good sign.
A beef kabob plate ($8.99) came with a generous salad that again defied expectations. The vegetables were fresher and cleaner than the surroundings might have implied. The meal itself was modest, with a skewer of marinated beef, rice pilaf, and a grilled pita bread. Still, it didn't have the artificial overtones of processed foods and the substantial satisfaction of dipping bread and meat into tzatziki sauce on a hot day seemed subtly Mediterranean. I would have liked a splash of light tomato sauce on the rice, as it's sometimes done in Greek places, but tzatziki sufficed in a pinch.
The gyros sandwich ($6.99) came with a side of the promised, crinkle-cut fries, which held up their end of the recommendation by being hot, crispy, and dusted with a spice mix that gave them a noticeable tang. I suspected paprika, though I've been told that cumin could be responsible as well. The gyros, for which the menu specifies the correct pronunciation "year-ose," had the irregular shape that indicates it had been carved from the large, compound roast. Whomever had done the carving had produced thin strips of meat that had become crispy, which was a nice touch.
As an exploration into the X-factor that defines a favored restaurant, Greek Corner provides a few clues:
Despite the humble nature of the meal, there was the undeniable impression that everything had been prepared with a degree of care, or at least professionalism. Even in a nice (or just expensive) restaurant our spirits are dampened if we get the feeling that people in the kitchen are just throwing food onto plates. Nobody likes a shoemaker.
Little touches matter. The delicately seasoned fries stood out because it's hard for something as mundane as a fry to be special, but when it is it sticks in your head.
Consistency matters. The person who recommended Greek Corner admitted to having gone there for fifteen-odd years. I get the feeling that very little has changed at the restaurant in that period. I have worked at and patronized places that couldn't decide on a style for more than a couple of months, sometimes weeks. Innovation and dynamism is one thing, schizophrenia is another.
In a lot of ways, that last one has the most resonance within the industry right now. Trends towards "seasonal" menus and "pushing the envelope" have been taken as excuses to break down the barrier between the test kitchen and the standard menu. It's somewhat common place for kitchens to be changing styles and looking for the next hot thing before they get the menu right on any given day. This is mostly Thomas Keller's fault, because everyone wants to be the Laundry. But it just doesn't work like that. I was reading Ruth Reichl on being the Times food critic and she mentioned something interesting. In her youth, restaurants were mostly interchangeable and people chose based on tradition and that inscrutable charm that good waiters and consistent fare can lend a place. I wouldn't go so far as to say that the industry needs to return to later-mid-century style, but a lot of that staid reliability has been leeched out; especially here in California. Maybe the next big-dollar hotel restau that opens up should take a minute and visit a few food courts before trying to blow our collective mind.
Greek Corner Cafe
3615 Midway Drive
Open daily 11AM-9PM
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