Gas Station Delicacies at Ekko's Greek-American Deli
Classic Greek moussaka is made with layers of fried eggplant slices, ground meat in a tomato sauce seasoned with cinnamon and herbs, and a thick topping of béchamel. The excellent version at Ekko's on Richmond has all that and more — there's also a stratum of delightfully soft potatoes in the hearty serving, and more potatoes come on the side. I marvel over the dish whenever I order it. How does the eggplant get so velvety? And why would you choose to serve something this complicated in a gas station?
Ekko's is located in the former garage area of the Ekko gas station on Richmond at South Rice. The founder, a slightly eccentric entrepreneur named Steve Bouboudakis, was a former airline pilot who joined his uncle in the service station business over a decade ago. When he moved his auto repair operations from the Ekko station across the street to a new business called Steve's Automotive, he decided to put a convenience store and deli in the former garage area. And being Greek, he decided to make it a Greek deli. It was originally called Stelios.
The food got a lot of raves, and there were write-ups about the wacky gas station Greek restaurant and its former airline pilot owner in some of the local newspapers. Maybe the novelty wore thin, or maybe the drudgery of running a restaurant took its toll. About eight months ago, Bouboudakis sold the restaurant to the employees who ran the place.
The first shift the new owners made was to change the name from Stelios to Ekko's. I asked the guy at the counter why they changed the name. He said when the restaurant was called Stelios, customers who came looking for the place saw the Ekko gas station signage and drove by. So they figured if they called it Ekko's, nobody would miss it.
There are a couple of small tables and a long counter with stools that overlooks the gas station parking lot. But most people get their food to go.
The food choices are posted above the drink case, and the selections are pretty extensive. Gyro meat, the seasoned ground lamb on a revolving vertical roaster, dominates the menu here as it does in most Houston Greek restaurants. There is a gyro sandwich, a gyro plate with enough meat and condiments to make a couple sandwiches, a combo plate with gyro meat and chicken, and a Greek salad with gyro meat slices served over the top.
Some people tout the gyros here as the best in town. Having sampled both the sandwich and the platter, I quite agree that Ekko's gyro meat is moist and served in extremely generous portions, that the vegetables are fresh, the pita is soft and the tzatziki is tangy. But the truth is that all the large rounds of seasoned lamb that turn on gyro machines in Houston Greek restaurants are made by big meat suppliers in Chicago. So it's a little silly to praise one over the other.
In an effort to find some other standout items, I ordered Ekko's Greek Combo Plate. Along with the lovely moussaka, it included house-made keftedes, or Greek meatballs. The small, bready meatballs were quite spicy and had an excellent crispy crust on the outside. I tried dipping them in the tzatziki sauce and squeezing lemon over them, but they really screamed for a zestier sauce. Ekko's also makes their own pastichio. Often called Greek lasagna, it's made of layers of tube-shaped pasta with meat sauce and a cheese topping. I suppose the rendition is authentic, but I have never quite understood the appeal of the simple pasta dish.
As for the other items on the Greek Combo, I am guessing that the dolmas, or stuffed grape leaves, came out of a can, and that the tiropitas, or cheese pies, and the spanakopita, or spinach pies, were previously frozen. Okay, so what do you expect from a gas station, right?
The thing is, I love the stellar barbecue and burgers turned out by so many Texas gas stations and convenience stores. But I have always assumed that it was the simple cooking that made the food so good. Ekko's on Richmond has turned my theory on its head. It's the complicated stuff that tastes good here — the simple items are lackluster.
Ekko's burgers are made from frozen burger patties. The Greek salads are average. The chicken breasts are cooked in advance and left to sit on the grill — they taste dried out. I ordered a New York hot dog and got a Sabrett frankfurter topped with sauerkraut and long, unappetizing strands of cooked dill. The sandwiches, breakfast croissants and breakfast tacos are all standard-issue. Meanwhile, elaborately prepared dishes like the moussaka taste fantastic.
It's easy to understand why Greek immigrant Steve Bouboudakis took pride in bringing the best examples of the cuisine of his homeland to his gas station deli. And there's certainly no reason why the new owners shouldn't keep making great Greek dishes. But it seems like they have an opportunity to make a couple more small changes that might make a huge difference.
Why not take a cue from the Roadster Grill in Bellaire? At Roadster, you can get not only awesome Greek food but hamburgers made from never-been-frozen ground beef patties, hot dogs that are big oversize wieners topped with chili, and lots of other local favorite combinations.
The owners of Ekko's would be doing themselves and the Galleria area a big favor if they upgraded their grill. Maybe Greek-born Steve Bouboudakis didn't understand the difference between frozen patties and real homemade hamburgers, but Houstonians sure do.
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