Dinner Deals: The Big Greek Cafe in Silver Spring
Friday, July 2, 2010
At a glance: This cozy counter-service Greek American restaurant in Silver Spring is the type of eatery that every neighborhood should have: tasty, fast, friendly and inexpensive. The small dining room is a seat-yourself affair proudly painted with the blue and white of the Greek flag. Near the counter is the restaurant's central piece of art: a black-and-white photo of Koralia Marmaras, mother of proprietors Nikos and Simos Marmaras, both formerly of the Golden Flame in Silver Spring. The photograph is not out of place in the dining room. Unlike the Golden Flame, which serves steak and seafood with a slight Greek accent and fine dining aspirations, the Big Greek Cafe dishes out the kind of big-plate Greek American cuisine that you know had its origins in a mother's kitchen.
On the menu: The Big Greek Cafe focuses on favorites and does them well. The gyro deserves its reputation: The shaved meat is moist and flavorful, the red onions and tomato fresh and crisp and the yogurt tzatziki sauce added its perfectly cool zip. Along similar lines, the bifteki, another house specialty, follows the gyro format, replacing the thinly sliced meat with a hearty patty of ground beef and lamb seasoned with familiar Mediterranean spices. The flavor is pleasantly beefy with nice depth from the lamb.
The appetizer menu is led by a selection of dips, the expected hummus and tzatziki (both of which do their duty without particular distinction) as well as something called feisty feta (a surprisingly piquant mixture of whipped feta and red chilies) and the more traditional taramosalata (a blend of cod roe, lemon juice and olive oil). A real standout here are the dolmades. The stuffed grape leaves were surprisingly light, not dripping in olive oil and filled with a deftly seasoned balance of rice and beef. Even the grape-leaf skeptics at our table were throwing lots for the last one.
As one would expect, salads and souvlaki take up prominent real estate on the menu. Worth noting is that those looking for a grocery store-style Greek salad should instead order the Horiatiki, or village salad, which does the "tomatoes, cucumbers, red onions and other vegetables dressed with oil and vinegar" thing. The house Greek salad is a more robust offering with anchovies and oregano and a slightly thicker house dressing. Chicken, pork and shrimp souvlaki can be ordered as a sandwich or as a platter, which comes with salad and a choice of side (the roasted potatoes and french fries were favorites). The Greek roast chicken, available by the quarter or half, is a pleasant surprise, with moist meat and a crisp, salty skin seasoned with lemon, garlic and oregano.
To finish your meal, look to the baklava, rolled and delicate, with a honey sauce that has been applied with a light touch; and the rizogalo, or Greek rice pudding, which is creamy, soothingly cool and dusted with cinnamon.
At your service: All food is ordered at the takeaway counter in the back of the dining room. The menu is hardly overwhelming, but there is still a lot to choose from, so if it's busy, it's best to know what you want before you step up to the register. The kitchen works fast; even very large orders were brought out quickly.
What to avoid: The falafel got mixed reviews. On multiple visits it was always well spiced, but while it would be crisp on one occasion it might be mushy the next. The spanakopita nails the flavor but feels a little too heavy -- though it still didn't last long on our table.
Wet your whistle: A cooler of soda, bottled water and juices doesn't seem to offer much to be excited about, but among the selections are some boxed Greek juice blends and soft drinks that are fun to explore.
Bottom line: On a menu that is comfortingly familiar and very affordable there are some real standouts and few disappointments. Those in search of a quick meal in Silver Spring should add the Big Greek Cafe to their list.
The Big Greek Cafe 8223 Georgia Ave., Silver Spring. Contact: 301-587-4733 or http:/