Sometimes a place isn’t so much about geography or what’s inside. Its significance lies in the people who are there.
On one of the first warm days this spring, Blue Eyes and I rode our bikes in search of adventure and something yummy. We ended up not too far from our Midtown abode. Painted a once-popular shade of burnt orange, the strip mall on one corner of Minnesota Drive and Benson Boulevard keeps its treasures away from the roads. Among a dollar store, a pie shop, and a bank hides Antonio’s Greek Bakery and Cafe.
After dealing with the lack of bike racks by locking our bikes to a lamp pole, we opened the door of the bakery to find a burly, gray-haired man in a white jacket reading the paper at the counter. No other customers in sight, he greeted us and told us to take the table near the window in the sun while he put on traditional Greek music.
He brought us water and let us decide what we wanted from the menu that had just enough options to make it hard for an indecisive person. I chose the lahanodolmades ($17) — cabbage rolls stuffed with rice and ground beef — and Blue Eyes went for the more expected gyro and roasted potatoes ($12).
Keeping time with the music, the man made his way back to the kitchen. Soon, we heard the sounds of utensils hitting a grill, ovens opening and closing, our food sizzling. But another sound joined the music of Antonio’s — the man began to sing, in Greek, as he cooked.
The walls were yet another shade of orange, decorated with doodads emblazoned with the eatery’s logo. Tables and chairs tried to go together but were nonetheless mismatched. It felt like sitting in the kitchen of an uncle’s house, the nice one who lets you eat cake for breakfast, so long as you don’t tell. The man, doubling as chef and server, brought us a basket of fresh bread to start.
Honestly, I can’t remember the bread because soon he dropped off two heaping plates of food. My cabbage rolls were covered in a yellow sauce that spread its way around the plate and onto the roasted potatoes next to them. The gyro, too, was immense and plated with a hefty helping of potatoes.
Our chef went back into the kitchen, leaving us to our meal. The cabbage was cooked well, not chewy but still firm enough to hold all the beef and rice. My plate was rounded out with a Greek salad of lettuce, feta, tomato and kalamata olives. The potatoes were roasted with a balanced mix of spices.
The gyro was a runaway hit with Blue Eyes. Piled high with lamb, tomato and lettuce in a pita, then topped with a homemade tzatziki — a cucumber, yogurt and dill sauce — wrapped in foil so it’s easier to consume without it falling apart. It also came with salad and potatoes.
When our meal came to an end, the man reappeared. Smiling as he took our empty plates, a sign to any chef of a job well done. Then we asked the burning question: Are you Antonio?
Why, yes of course, he replied.
He specifically asked where we heard about the cafe.
“They love me on the Yelp,” he said, motioning to stickers in the window from that and other internet review sites. After further study, I can vouch for his assertion.
A huge supporter of a final course, Antonio tends to sneak a free dessert into your carry out bag or bring it to your table with a grin peeking out from under his mustache. That day he graced us with galaktoboureko (normally $4) — a decadent custard stuffed between phyllo dough. It was a really good thing I had to ride my bike home after such a meal.
Several weeks later, I wanted to see if Antonio’s food would be just as good for take-out during the midweek dinner rush. I found the website — surprisingly, sleek and modern — and perused the menu. Around 6:30, I phoned in an order of the spanakopita appetizer ($8), oven-baked pastitsio($17) and the orzo ($20). It would be about 20 minutes until my food would be ready.
When I arrived, the same music was playing. Guests filled several tables and sitting at a table with some of them was Antonio. He rose and met me at the register with my order, packaged in a paper bag and each styrofoam container labeled with neat, cursive script. He was not alone that night, someone was working in the kitchen. I was in and out quickly and even though I paid next to stacked containers of sweets, I was not pressured to buy anything more than what I had ordered.
The orzo was mixed with New Zealand lamb and a tomato sauce with warm spices. The lamb was tender and kept the meat’s distinct flavor, but the orzo was just a touch overdone for my liking. Overall, the dish was stellar.
Akin to a lasagna, the pastitsio was layers of penne pasta, a spiced beef and tomato sauce, topped with a Bechamel sauce and then baked. The noodles get smooshed under the weight of the filling and create a great base layer. The menu says it’s a hit with kids and I can easily see why since it’s not too far from a well-known pasta dish. It may have been better had we dined in, piping hot without time for the sauce on top to harden.
As good as these were, the real star of dinner was the spanakopita — plated as triangle hand pies. (Seriously, my notes start with “DUDE…SO GOOD.”) The crust was perfectly flaky, thanks to the phyllo dough wrapper, and dusted with cheese. Inside was a mixture of spinach and garlic and magic. It’s like a one-way ticket to Greece. This spinach pie is also available in a larger portion as an entree.
Though, nothing seemed to taste as good when we ate it at our dining room table. It was missing something — something I now know was Greek music, a baritone voice singing along and the joy of a chef who loves to feed people.
Published on KTVA.com on June 24, 2016.