By Frank Sabatini Jr. | Restaurant Review
I have a major problem dining at Olympic Café.
Nearly every menu item — Greek, American and the house-made desserts — sends me into a state of shameful gluttony quelled only by overeating and stealing forkfuls of food from my tablemates along the way.
Things have become worse in this respect since the 32-year-old restaurant recently moved from its original location into larger digs a half-block down the street.
There are now more options such as spicy, whipped feta served with pita bread and veggies; green beans braised in Mediterranean-style tomato sauce; pork souvlaki skewers that you douse in fresh lemon; and more.
There are also additional desserts, which if you’re lucky, might include galactoboureko, a fast-selling custard cake layered meticulously with phyllo pastry. It’s a classic Greek confection most of us haven’t encountered.
Seeing is believing how owners John and Donna Kotselas transformed a shabby single-standing structure that previously housed Jersey Joe’s into an exquisite space loaded with antique elements from Europe. Compared to the generic atmosphere of their original location, this is akin to an inviting taverna on Santorini Island, missing only a high-cliff view of the Aegean Sea.
John, a native of Greece, possesses an eye for Old World charm. His redesign included the creation of a covered side patio framed in flora and detailed wrought iron — exactly what was needed to camouflage the unremarkable aesthetics of University Avenue out front.
The patio is also available for private events. At a recent wedding-rehearsal dinner for a lesbian couple, the space easily accommodated 20 guests for a Mediterranean feast that included Greek wedding cookies called kourabiedes, one of the many confections Donna makes from scratch and displays in heavy glass domes inside the restaurant.
Before devouring the aforementioned pork skewers and fluffy feta spiced with oregano, olive oil and pepperoncini brine, we breezed through an order of thick house-made hummus. It came with excellent cornmeal-dusted pita bread sourced from a Chicago company — not the doughy pockets that taste like their plastic-bag wrappings I encounter frequently from other distributors.
We proceeded to two Greek entrees: Olympic’s eminent half-chicken dinner with or without lemon gravy; and a homey casserole of tube pasta and meat sauce mantled in béchamel sauce, called pastitsio. Both meals include Greek salad garnished with a plank of good non-salty feta cheese made appropriately with sheep’s milk.
Olympic’s charbroiled chicken consistently sports ultra-crispy skin dusted in aromatic oregano, which pairs finely to the lemon gravy. My companion requested it on the side as well as on the accompanying mashed potatoes, allowing her to control the tangy, addicting effect it has on the chicken.
My softly spiced pastitsio served with roasted potatoes was creamy and meaty but lighter and looser compared to Italian lasagna, thanks to less-starchy noodles and the absence of cheese in the construct.
The kitchen’s charcoal grill is what consistently instills extra life into various meat dishes, which except for the burgers and Greek-style meatloaf, are marinated for at least 24 hours.
And then there’s the warm family element that raises the dining experience to a desirable level, no matter what you eat.
Two of the couple’s handsome sons also work at the restaurant, Nick and Kostas, as does John’s mother on occasion. Everyone in the clan is gracious and sociable, as though they’re serving you dinner in their own houses. With mom-and-pop restaurants verging on extinction, this is one of San Diego’s most thriving holdouts.
We concluded with a few of Donna’s desserts, which are half the reason for coming to Olympic Café. They included a slice of “blueberry boy bait cake” that Donna added to her repertoire before this year’s San Diego LGBT Pride weekend. It’s an old recipe she found in a contemporary cookbook that mingles fresh blueberries with classic coffee-cake crumb. Rumor has it the cake was named from its man-attracting powers.
We also seized the last towering slice of the custard-y galactoboureko with cinnamon sprinkled on top. It matched in decadence to a piece of cheesecake crowned with a layer of sour cream, not to mention a spiced Christmas-y tasting melomakarino cookie made with obvious measures of orange juice, orange peel and honey.
Olympic Café, which also serves daily breakfast, hasn’t wavered in service and food quality since I started coming here several years ago. And now with a charming élan that fits its Greek roots, the Kotselas family has achieved everything customers demand from a neighborhood restaurant.
—Frank Sabatini Jr. is the author of “Secret San Diego” (ECW Press), and began his local writing career more than two decades ago as a staffer for the former San Diego Tribune. You can reach him at email@example.com.