Greek, Spain and their Mediterranean neighbors aren't faring so well these days, but Mediterranean food seems to have found its sweet spot in the Tampa Bay area.
Fast-casual Med got chugging some years back with Louis Pappas Market Cafes, but in the past couple of years we've seen a profusion of affordable grab-and-go concepts that focus on the fresh-veg-and-grilled-meat combos of those sunny climes.
Stuff it in a pita, tuck it in a wrap, toss it over rice or salad, then give it a swirl of tzatziki or hummus and you're on your way. Zeko's Mediterranean Grill and Dooners in St. Petersburg, Mo' Ziki in Largo and now a fleet of Little Greek restaurants provide a healthy and fast alternative to burgers and such.
Little Greek president Nick Vojnovic and founder Sigrid Bratic have opened seven locations — and are set to open an eighth — in the Tampa Bay area. Vojnovic was the previous president of Beef 'O' Brady's, helping that company grow from 30 units to 270. And indeed this new venture has a similar feel. It's a clean, pleasant, order-at-the-counter affair with a tiny footprint and open galley kitchen. It seems geared primarily for takeout, its attractive but spare dining room going largely underutilized.
The South Tampa Little Greek, which opened at the beginning of May, is nestled in a strip mall adjacent to a Little Caesars pizza, although there's nothing particularly diminutive about what either of them is serving. At Little Greek, a traditional pita brings a warm, fat Middle Eastern bread topped with an avalanche of lettuce and sliced tomato and onion with a perfect amount of tzatziki, then your choice of gyro, grilled white-meat chicken or crunchy falafel balls ($5.99). Add $1.75 and you can pair it with really nice skin-on rustic fries or fatter Greek potatoes. In all, a very generous dinner.
The regular Greek salad ($6.19) and my preference, the horiatiki ($6.79), a more traditional salad that eschews lettuce in favor of loads of peppers and cukes, are both ample enough to serve two, tucked into a sturdy plastic clamshell that resists tipovers even in rough traffic. Add chicken or gyro meat to this (an additional $2.19) and it's dinner for two, even more satisfying with a cup of egg-thickened, sustaining avgolemono soup ($2.39 cup, $3.39 bowl). The soup has the right balance of lemon tang and rich chicken broth, a cold buster if ever there was one.
I was less smitten with traditional Greek entrees like moussaka and pastitsio. Most restaurants in Tarpon blow these sturdy but uninspired versions out of the water. But at $8.99, including a soup or salad and pita, there's good value there.
In the Tampa location, service is quick and personable, with care put into the details: Cold food is packed separately from warm, pita wedges come hot from the griddle at the last second, and dressings get tucked in where they can't leak. On my visits, rice pudding was overly firm and baklava was fairly dry (both $2.39), but it still seems like a boon in South Tampa to busy families. In fact, the ownership team has been strategic about all locations. They take over small, fairly unassuming spaces in areas heavily trafficked by potentially hungry commuters. As a beleaguered parent's impulse buy, a chicken souvlaki dinner (chicken skewer, rice, tomato, cuke and pita bread) rings in at $3.89 and is a much more wholesome choice than most goodies under the Golden Arches. I wouldn't be surprised if we see a lot more Little Greeks.
Laura Reiley can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (727) 892-2293. Reiley dines anonymously and unannounced. The Times pays all expenses.