Photo by Jack GouldActivists don't get much more active than Irvine's Marilyn and Angelo Vassos. If they're not busy chaining themselves to an earthmover in Irvine Canyon, they're suing the city of Irvine to provide affordable housing or off protesting at the Democratic National Convention or a Crystal Cove hearing. They've been arrested more often than some couples get conjugal. There was even a landmark case handled by the ACLU—Vassos vs. the City of Los Angeles and the LAPD—that resulted in changes in LAPD procedures.
You can work up an appetite just thinking about all that activity. And when the Vassoses vamoose to an eatery, it is to a Greek joint in San Pedro. Asked if it was the well-known, upscale Papadakis, Marilyn scoffed, "That's not Greek food!" No, their place of choice is a humble, six-table, working-class caf amid the auto and pawn shops of Pacific Avenue called Elias Caf. There's no belly-dancing here, just bellies.
Angelo says the meals are just like the ones his Greek-immigrant mother cooked. And if you don't think that means it's good, Angelo may come chain himself to your Weber grill.
I've known him since a time when everyone I knew called him Mr. Vassos because he was our high school physics teacher, one of those rare ones who made you care about learning and the world you lived in. Though a generation or two older than most of us, the pair actively enjoy the world they're trying to save, biking and kayaking all over the place.
You might need a similar regimen if you intend to eat very often at Elias. The $7.95 house buffet is a Mount Olympus of food. The buffet allows you four choices from the steam table, but there are really only three choices because if you don't get the Greek potatoes, smiling up at you from their bath of lemon, garlic and olive oil, then you are too foolish to live.
Some of the other choices seem nearly as mandatory. The pastitsio is a sort of Greek lasagna, with macaroni pasta, ground beef and cheeses in enough layers to rival Troy, topped with a browned bchamel sauce. (The Vassoses, by the way, don't eat the red meat items.) The Athenian chicken is a boneless breast wrapped around cooked spinach and feta cheese. There is also what I would guess is called chicken chicken, thigh and leg pieces broiled in a spicy crust. The grape leaf dolmades stuffed with ground beef and rice are very good, and even better is their big sister, the lahano dolmades, which boast the same stuffing wrapped in cabbage leaves. Veggie sides include spiced green beans, huge lima beans in a tomato sauce and a simple vegetable rice dish. There is also orzo, which is pasta cut and cooked to resemble grains of fried rice.
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Without the benefit of a Greek mother's cooking to compare it to, I can only say that it is all very, very good.
You can substitute other menu items on your buffet order, such as the lamb shank, which is the size of a hair dryer, quite flavorful and non-greasy. The items we didn't sample this time out included a respectable-looking moussaka, the gyros, stuffed peppers and tomatoes, and other traditional items such as the spanakopita (spinach and feta in filo), avgolemono soup (a whipped egg and rice in a chicken-lemon broth) and the horta, which I recall being a silica-based life form on Star Trek, while the Greek take on it is boiled greens in olive oil.
The sole non-splendific item we tried was the baklava. It was served hot, and it evidently got that way via a microwave. Instead of the filo dough being flaky, as it should, it was more the consistency of a bread pudding. Despite that, it wasn't bad, and combined with the rest of the meal and a bottle of retsina pine-flavored wine (you have to bring in your own beer or wine), it left me so full and happy that I was torpid as a Pompeii dog for the rest of the evening.
Elias Caf, located at 1321 S. Pacific Ave., San Pedro, is open Tues.-Sun., 10 a.m.-10 p.m. (310) 514-3997. No alcohol. Dinner for two, $10-$30, food only. MC and Visa accepted.