Restaurants can improve. Last year, a couple of weeks after this small restaurant opened in Orange, I stopped in to see if it might warrant a review. It didn’t. Though nurses and doctors from across the street at Children’s Hospital of Orange County and St. Joseph’s and older men yapping in Greek filled the seats, I didn’t expect the place to survive. Tough gyro meat, undercooked vegetables, watery tzatziki, clammy pita bread—it failed on every possible level. Plus, it had replaced one of my favorite Italian restaurants. Pass.
I skeptically returned last month at a reader’s insistence. I went for the gyro again, a good barometer of a Greek restaurant’s merit. A great gyro functions like its distant cousins, the Middle Eastern shawerma and Mexico-by-way-of-Lebanon al pastor. Simultaneously charred and succulent paper-thin meat strips sliced from a slowly twirling spit, its quality depends upon cooks who know when to slice and when to leave it alone. Greek Garden Grille’s version now measured up to par, and the tzatziki had been upgraded—creamy and zesty. The gyro plate wasn’t spectacular, merely good.
Another visit. I asked for the pastitsio, and out came a block of something that looked like warped lasagna. A thick layer of what this Mexican can only describe as tomato-sauce-topped masa teetered over ground meat, cheese and elbow pasta. Not much to look at . . . but then I forked into the mass. The pastitsio literally exploded, leaving its former structure to spread across the plate (man, is this a condensed dish!). I scooped up the remains: beef sweetened with hints of cinnamon and other spices, buttery pasta, a fresh sauce. No lasagna can match pastitsio at its best, and Greek Garden Grill makes just that.
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Subsequent outings revealed other great entrées, a what’s-what of a standard Greektown dive. Their house salad comes loaded with feta cheese and a creamy pink dressing—not the healthiest of starter plates, but one that nevertheless refreshes. The spanakopitas are as delicious a handheld treat as you’ll find ’round these parts, all about the sweet, layered phyllo dough encasing slightly melted feta and spinach that isn’t bitter at all. Avgolemono (chicken-and-lemon soup stocked with rice grains that joyfully plump up) goes for about four bucks a pint. Souvlaki, chunks of meat, has more char and heft than gyro; both types of meat come in plates or stuffed into pitas alongside veggies, tzatziki and more veggies. And the melitzanosalata eggplant spread is babaghanoush done the Adriatic way—which is to say, better. And, of course, the prices and portions are perfect for our recession-era wallets and purses.
Greek Garden Grill at 424 S. Main St., Ste. D, Orange, (714) 937-1888; www.greekgardengrill.com.