If you want gyros in a hurry, you’re covered in the South Sound. From Gig Harbor to Tacoma to Lakewood, fast-service restaurants supply gyros, falafel and souvlaki aplenty. (See my list below of those restaurants.)
You know what we’re really missing? Upscale Greek eateries – restaurants with beautifully plated cuisine and a refined atmosphere. After the closure of Tacoma’s Zara Mediterranean in October and South Hill’s My Greek in July, the upscale Greek landscape grew bleak, save for Puyallup’s It’s Greek To Me, the only moderately upscale Greek restaurant left in Pierce County.
But on the heels of those closures came two restaurants in December and January: Ammar’s Mediterranean Palace in the Tacoma Dome neighborhood, and a recast My Greek in Tacoma’s Westgate neighborhood.
Both restaurants fill a broader void – there really aren’t enough Greek or Mediterranean leaning eateries here – but both lack the professionally designed interiors of Zara and the former South Hill My Greek. I’d make the case that despite the failure of one-year-old Zara – a restaurant that had trouble delivering consistently executed food and suffered from a hard-to-find front door – there still is room for that style of dining.
Why don’t we have more?
For Ammar Mannaa, who now owns two Greek restaurants in Tacoma, the answer is economics. “It’s really hard to maintain that here – (diners) want to pay less and they expect more. I could charge $22 or $30 for entrees, but I wouldn’t survive.”
Four years in this critic’s job tells me he’s right, but I still yearn for that high-end experience.
But enough of that. Here’s what you need to know about Tacoma’s two newest Greek restaurants. Ammar’s and My Greek have menus that read like the greatest hits of Greek dining. They’re also in neighborhoods short on dining options. If you pick one over the other, make it Ammar’s. Read on.
Ammar’s Mediterranean Palace
Where: 409 E. 26th St., Tacoma; 253-272-1047, palacemediterranean.com
Mediterranean Palace, which has operated in Freighthouse Square since 1989, has remained my go-to restaurant for gyros and well executed fast Greek food. Ammar and Sorada Mannaa are the always-smiling couple behind the counter at the food court eatery.
They opened their second restaurant called Ammar’s in December in a Dome district neighborhood with too few good places to eat. It’s a casual eatery with sit-down table service and a thoughtful wine and beer list. The dining room is serviceable with well-spaced tables and a small attached bar. The sparse decor has been a work in progress – more artwork was recently hung, which added a bit of warmth to a dining room that needed it. It’s a welcoming restaurant – a fine destination for business lunches or family dinners. Kids are welcome.
Two anonymous visits showed Ammar’s is just as much a treasure as its sister restaurant Mediterranean Palace. The greens tasted crisp, the kitchen was generous with the lemon and garlic, and the meats and vegetables arrived tinged with smoke and grill marks. Salads and sandwiches are drizzled with tahini-tickled or garlic-fueled sauces, slices of grilled peppers and zucchini adorned every plate, whether it contained a sandwich or entree.
The abbreviated menu covers the standard Greek territory – gyros and lamb dishes, meat kebabs, moussaka and appetizers like dolmades and calamari – and includes lasagna and a few American dishes. Most entrees were $9-$14.
Ammar Mannaa said he’s struggled to find a stable kitchen staff, and I noticed occasional problems during the opening weeks. Garlic-tinged rice lacked seasoning and was lukewarm on one visit, deliciously palatable on another. The kitchen nailed the flavor of marinated lamb kebabs ($13.99), but they committed the sin of overcooking them. Those problems remained isolated.
On the starter menu, the dolmades tasted lemony and the grape leaves held a loose stuffing of rice and herbs ($6.99). The spinach-feta turnover spanakopita ($7.99) was sturdy; it didn’t dissolve into a flaky mess with the push of the fork.
If you’ve never had it, think of the Mediterranean entree moussaka as a Greek lasagna, only with potatoes and eggplant standing in for pasta. A sharp tomato-beef stuffing and nutmeg-kissed layer of bechamel yielded richness ($13.99). The falafel sandwich was superb: creamy discs of spiced ground garbanzo beans were fried and split, fragrantly garlic against an even more garlicky yogurt tzatziki sauce, and were nestled into griddle-warmed pita with layers of crunchy lettuce, onions and tomatoes. Vegetarians be on alert: Falafel at Ammar’s is the best in town.
If you get anything as a newcomer to Greek food, make it the gyros sandwich ($8.99) with lamb. It was a great deal for the price, and came with rice and salad.
Tip: Mannaa will have a grand opening party beginning at 2 p.m. Saturday, Feb. 9. He’ll also have a special Valentine’s Day dinner. Check the Facebook page for details.
Where: 2303 N. Pearl St., Tacoma; 253-752-2700, mygreekanditalianrestaurant.com
In 2007, Nader Morcos opened Mr. Greek as the first U.S. location of the Canadian Mr. Greek chain. He left the chain in 2008 and changed the name of his South Hill restaurant to My Greek. The menu was mostly Greek favorites with a selection of Italian pasta and pizza. The inviting dining room was a sprawling space with sleek, modern surfaces, tiered booths and vibrant artwork. Morcos closed that restaurant last July.
A Greek restaurant is a welcome addition to Westgate, a neighborhood that could use more restaurants to add to the small array it already has – Joeseppi’s, Flying Fish and Indochine, among them.
Here’s the primary problem diners face from the door at the new My Greek: The restaurant looks virtually unchanged from when Shari’s served pies and pancakes there. The restaurant surfaces appear faded, the Greek touches minimal beyond pendant lighting. My Greek doesn’t carry the feel of a date-night destination like its former sister restaurant that closed in South Hill.
The menu is priced slightly higher than what you’d expect for the atmosphere. Dinner entrees were around $14-$19, sandwiches and lunches closer to $10-$13.
I wonder how well the Italian side of the menu will fare with Joeseppi’s located across the parking lot? I stuck with the Greek selections. On two anonymous visits, I noticed problems similar to those I found during my previous South Hill My Greek visits. The sides were troubling: overdressed salads were limp, green beans were squeaky, fried potatoes were dry and lacked seasoning. Beef-stuffed dolmades ($7.95) tasted chewy. Falafel tucked into a pita sandwich ($9.95) had a rubbery texture.
What the restaurant continues to do well is the lamb, in the form of chops ($17.95) and tucked into a souvlaki wrap ($9.95). The moussaka ($13.95) also was a treat. Layers of eggplant and potato were paired with a rich tomato-beef stuffing with just the right note of nutmeg in the bechamel.
Here’s something to like: baskets of warmed pita with garlic butter on the side. Ask for extra.
Greek on the go: A guide to gyros
While the South Sound may be short on refined Greek eateries with table service, plenty of fast-casual Greek eateries offer handheld portable wraps – gyros, falafel and souvlaki. A few to try:
Ikonos: This walk-in eatery has some of the best-priced lamb gyros you’ll find in the region – $6.45 for grilled lamb from an Oregon farm – in a whole-wheat pita that’s been griddle-warmed and stuffed with lettuce, tomatoes, cucumbers and a thin tzatziki. They’re not skimpy with the feta. Do not miss the avgolemono soup – it’s dynamite. The dining room is tiny and impeccable. The counter help is always cheerful. They have al fresco seating when the weather cooperates. 4920 Point Fosdick Drive NW, Gig Harbor; 253-858-7070
It’s Greek to Me: This fast-service restaurant in Tacoma has served diners for two decades in an odd building where Sprague, Division and Sixth collide. Find delicious portable Greek sandwiches here, but not for long. The restaurant will be moving soon across the street to 1702 Sixth Ave., Tacoma, 253-272-1375. The same casual eats will be served in a slightly larger dining room (it will still be order at the counter). Owner Jim Wick also has a sit-down restaurant by the same name in Puyallup with a bar, 328 S. Meridian, Puyallup, 253-200-2333. Website: itsgreektomerestaurant.com
Mediterranean Palace: Ammar and Sorada Mannaa’s Freighthouse Square outpost is a food court stand and a casual version of their sit-down restaurant, Ammar’s Mediterranean Palace. Find expertly crafted Greek sandwiches and a selection of kebabs for modest prices. The must order for a first visit is the gyros sandwich platter ($8.29, or $6.29 for sandwich only). The meal comes with a salad and rice. People watching in the food court is always free. 430 E. 25th St., Tacoma; 253-272-0845, palacemediterranean.com
Daniah International Market: This is a combination grocery store and deli with a short menu of sandwiches, plates and salads. I’ve had inconsistent experiences in the deli. The source of the problem for the gyros sandwich is the use of the microwave to heat the pita. It turns the flatbread chewy. The salads are composed with lovely flavors – a sprinkle of feta and a puckery vinaigrette. Prices are low (under $7). What I appreciate about Daniah is that it’s the best Middle Eastern and Mediterranean grocery store in the Tacoma area. The store stocks ingredients impossible to find elsewhere It’s worth a stop just to peruse the spice selection. 6603 Sixth Ave., Tacoma, 253-566-0393
Greek Cafe: You can find excellent gyros and other sandwich wraps, but I have found other entrees inconsistent. The gyros, however, are worth a detour to this Lakewood cafe. This casual eatery offers table service, or you can order at the counter. The kitchen griddle warms the pita before slicing off gyros meat from a spinning cone of ground beef and lamb. The tzatziki is thin and the meat is loaded with fat (and flavor), be careful holding this one if you’re eating on the go. 10924 Bridgeport Way, Lakewood, 253-581-2222
On the horizon:
Gyros Place in University Place closed this summer, but a sign went up recently announcing Gyros Zone in that location. Another recent change: University Gyros House in downtown Tacoma closed last month.
Sue Kidd dines anonymously and The News Tribune pays for all meals. Reach her at 253-597-8270 or firstname.lastname@example.org