Two reviews of Laguna Niguel restaurants in one issue? Hey, the last time I reviewed one of the bland 'burb's eateries was in 2004, so we might as well catch up. And while Edwin thinks Bistro Anju is good-great, I dare say Tastes of Greece is downright spectacular. If restaurants could transform into inanimate objects, this cozy dive would be a pillow—you just want to snuggle with it all afternoon and into the night.
Tastes of Greece is as tiny a brick-and-mortar restaurant in Orange County as you'll ever find: five tables, with the stoves and counters taking up three-quarters of the strip-mall space and the flat-screen television hanging above the front door because that's the only spot available. But the owners have put love into every available nook. Look up and notice the plastic cover for the fluorescent lights, superimposed with single-panel photos of a gorgeous blue sky with cumulus clouds. Squint toward the back and see Greek cookbooks, laid out for customers to read. A deli counter offers Greek wines, beers and chocolates. On one small wall hang pamphlets for various Greek-American clubs in South County; on another, pictures of Hellenic architectural glories. These aren't professional shots—the angles are a bit off, and they could use cropping. But those personal touches reach the soul like their falafels—maybe not the most intricate thing, but absolutely satisfying.
Two, sometimes three people run the kitchen, so the service usually lags. That just means more care is put into each meal—seriously. A typical dish contains an entrée (meat, falafel or veggies) on a bed of long-grain, soft rice; forming a perfect L around it are an expertly tossed Greek salad, olives glistening among chunks of sharp feta; pita bread cut into diamonds; and a mound of canary-yellow rossiki, a Greek take on Russian salad heavy on the mayo and capers. Gyro shavings collapse into themselves under the weight of all the juice each absorbed while slowly twirling on the spit. An order of soutzoukakia come five to an order, meatballs fat and charred on the outside while seeping fragrant juices. Run them through the house-prepared spicy feta—pungent, with a Mexican-esque kick—and you'll find the next great meat condiment.
The pita sandwiches are as thick as burritos; the spanakopita spinach pie as delicately layered as a gold-leaf book. Daily specials get scribbled on the chalkboard, and they even sell tyropita, the legendary breakfast pastry of Hellas, cheesy and gooey and gorgeous. Tastes of Greece is reason enough to visit Laguna Niguel, and may its success spur city entrepreneurs to open more, better restaurants so it can beat that smarmy Laguna Hills in their restaurant wars.
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This column appeared in print as "Give ’Em Hellenic."