| photography by Alex Lepe |
Satisfying an uncertain nostalgia for the food court cuisine of the ‘90s while doubling as a quaint dive for a quick bite or quiet, unrushed meal, Opa! Mediterranean Café does just what owner Alan Asadian hoped for when he opened the fast-casual eatery a year ago. The longtime restaurateur established a loyal following first inside Hulen Mall at his initial Greek concept, Opah Greek Flavor in 1998, before answering numerous customer requests to open a brick-and-mortar location. Asadian says food courts are busy and loud, and regulars wanted to sit somewhere cozy and calm.
Owner Alan Asadian works with a traditional gyro spit.
While Opa! is certainly not loud, here’s hoping Asadian will soon add more coziness to an otherwise very bland atmosphere. Customers can enter via the front or the back of the narrow dive, which offers two rows of seating along what resembles a wide, empty hallway. If weather permits, the optimum choice is to sit outside – at a handful of sidewalk tables overlooking West Seventh Street or behind the restaurant under the recently added, string light-strewn pergola, which is especially pleasant at night with a glass or bottle of wine. Opa! does serve alcohol.
Opa! sits in an unassuming spot on West Seventh.
Regardless of seating locale, all orders are taken inside at the counter. Patrons can view the menu, categorized by sandwiches, specialties, salads, sides, extras and dessert, above the cash register, which is directly in front of the traditional vertical gyro spit and cook-top grill. Asadian makes efficient use of a small space. After ordering, customers are given pagers, which buzz when their meal, served on plastic cafeteria trays, are ready to pick up. Drinks are self-serve from a soda fountain. Domestic and a couple of imported beers are available as well as a limited selection of red and white wine by the bottle or glass.
On a recent late lunch visit, service was friendly, and the dining room was bare. Our order of chicken souvlaki ($8.99), the Greek burger ($5.99) and feta fries ($3.19) was ready promptly. Dining outside the front entrance, we dove first into the fries, a generous basket of what tasted like a frozen variety – starchy and very soft on the inside and just faintly crisp on the outside – delicately topped with a light dusting of grated feta cheese. While simple and lacking much flavor, the dish was easily inhaled.
When ordering the Greek burger, we envisioned a Greek-seasoned ground beef patty served atop a hamburger bun with perhaps red onions, feta cheese, tomatoes and tangy tzatziki sauce, a yogurt-based sauce made with garlic, olive oil and red wine vinegar. All those components were there except the bun. Instead, the ensemble was tucked into warm pita bread, a pleasant twist. Like the fries, the patty could have used more seasoning, but a few extra douses of the house-made tzatziki made all the difference.
The chicken souvlaki overall seemed smallish, but the bite-size morsels of skinless, boneless grilled chicken were flavorful and well-marinated with hints of garlic, oregano and lemon. Heavy with plain white rice, the dish also came with leaf lettuce, diced tomatoes and a few thick-sliced red onions.
On previous visits, the restaurant’s signature gyro salad stood out as a table favorite, thanks to thick cubes of feta cheese, chunky diced cucumber, oil-soaked olives and plenty of thinly sliced lamb and beef gyro meat, the latter of which could be served just a tad toastier. Diners also can’t go wrong with the creamy homemade hummus ($3.49) or the rolled, rice-stuffed grape leaves called dolmades ($3.99). The flaky, baklava wedges ($2.50) are also worth a trip for their honeyed layers of crispy phyllo pastry and chopped nuts.
The quirky nuances of the classic food court gyro experience are here – plastic trays, counter service, the rotating cone of gyro meat – but without the hectic mall atmosphere.