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In my junior year of high school, I dated a string of big, hairy, opinionated Greeks. They were charming, good-looking guys: excellent drivers, with epic egos and huge, tight-knit Greek families that had me over for dinner all the time.
But after a series of awkward breakups and hurt feelings, I swore off Greek food. I avoided Greek restaurants (diners were okay, as long as I didn't have to smell anybody's loukanika), and I wouldn't touch street-fair gyros. I ignored feta cheese for years.
Even today, I think of Greek food and picture Billy Panoutsopoulos' heaving, fuzzy chest looming over me. Spanakopita brings to mind Chris Kostakis' pushy Greek tongue darting into my 16-year-old mouth. Clearly, this was a problem. So, after hearing praise about Yanni's, I showed up for dinner hoping to overcome my Greek issues, hoping to find assurance and reconciliation in spiced lamb and good olives and warm pita.
A modest, family-owned restaurant that's been a fixture in Greenwood since the early '80s, Yanni's sits on a neighborhoody block where you're likely to see moms in yoga pants pushing expensive strollers, golden retrievers panting alongside. Of course my waiter was a handsome Greek man with broad shoulders and a nice smile. I could barely look at him as he teased me about mispronouncing Greek terms from the menu. "You're not even trying," he chided good-naturedly. (If he only knew.)
I dropped any unreasonable grudges as soon as the platter of tyropitakia and spanakopitakia piatela ($7.75) hit the table. Those buxom triangles, filled with spinach and egg or a velvety feta, egg, and milk mixture, are a testament to the power of phyllo: flaky, delicate dough, layers upon layers of delicate pastry sheets that can make the plainest ingredients--in this case, everyday grocery items--seem luxurious. (And Yanni's knows the Golden Rule of Phyllo: B-U-T-T-E-R. Lots of it.)
I almost went straight to keftedes (baked meatballs), but my handsome Greek waiter convinced me to try some homemade avgolemono soup (served with entrées; $2 side). I had never tasted anything like it. It is now my new favorite thing, with its soothing yellow color, its thick, porridge-like consistency. I am obsessed with this soup's simplicity: How can meat stock, beaten eggs, fresh lemon juice, salt, and soft kernels of rice produce such intricate flavors? "A lot of places use cornstarch or flour to thicken, but not here," Handsome Greek Waiter promised. I love the idea that adding cornstarch would be like cheating; that obtaining avgolemono's creamy ideal is more about the physical, persistent act of stirring than it is about using the right ingredient.
Eating at a Greek taverna wouldn't feel right if dolmathes ($9.25), stuffed grape leaves, weren't involved. I usually associate them with obligatory party food: small, damp, and cold. Yanni's dolmathes dinner resuscitates the idea; theirs are bursting with ground beef and seasoned rice, aromatic herbs, and a solid tzatziki sauce--cooling yogurt and cucumber and tons of garlic. It's tempting to continue with souvlaki, which Yanni's offers marinated, skewered with onions and peppers, with either beef, lamb, chicken, or pork (really, the perfect meal-on-a-stick), but I encourage you to go with the arni paidakia skaras ($14.95), traditional Greek lamb. (God bless 'em--the Greeks are such a meat-savvy people.) Two lamb loin chops are marinated in olive oil, spices, and fresh-chopped parsley and dill (and is that mint?), then gently broiled. Savory and delectable, infused with strong flavors, and medium rare, it's the best-tasting lamb I've had in a long time. Accompanying vegetables--mainly broccoli, cauliflower, and carrots, flecked with bright purple cabbage--were subtly seasoned and, refreshingly, not overcooked. I happily overlooked the over-salted boiled potatoes; who needs starch when the vegetables are impeccable?
I was so sleepy and full after the skaras I couldn't possibly lift my baklava ban ($2.50) or make room for the exciting galaktoboureko ($3.25, custard wrapped in phyllo, baked warm and drizzled with honey-lemon syrup). But I thought about those lamb chops for days afterward, silently salivating. And I never--not once, thankfully--thought about Billy's hairy chest.
7419 Greenwood Ave N, 783-6945. Mon-Sat 4-10 pm; closed Sundays.