Greek Heros

Both the Philly cheese steak and the moussaka are incredible.
Troy Fields

The moussaka at YiaYia's Roadster Grill on Bissonnet in Bellaire is one of the best in Houston. It starts with a bottom crust made with wide slices of potato. The middle is a thick, tomato-flavored ground beef and eggplant mixture with a huge cinnamon and garlic flavor. And the topping is a snow-white, custard-like béchamel with a hint of Parmesan. Best of all, a generous portion of this homey moussaka comes with delightful oven-roasted vegetables, rice, pita bread and a small Greek salad -- all for an unbelievable $8.95.

YiaYia's Roadster Grill is a burger joint/Greek restaurant named for a grandma who street-races a convertible hot rod. Or so it would seem from the name of the place, anyway. The alternately gruff and friendly proprietor, Nick Semoudiaris, says the moussaka is made by his mother Koula.

I have wondered about the Roadster Grill ever since the place first opened. It's located a few doors down from the Bellaire Broiler, a legendary hamburger joint. Mainly, I wondered, What were they thinking? Perhaps they thought Bellaire Broiler was so popular they could pick up some overflow business when the place was too crowded to get into?

By the time I got around to stopping by for lunch a few years later, the original owners had already departed and Nick Semoudiaris had taken over. He added Greek items to the hamburger menu and improbably slapped "YiaYia's" (Greek for Grandma's) onto the Roadster Grill's name. At first I found the menu of hamburgers, hot dogs, gyros and souvlaki as ridiculous as the name. Then I sampled both the American and Greek sides of the menu. Now I go there all the time. Or at least I frequently call in an order and pick it up at the drive-in window.

There's not much to recommend the dining area of YiaYia's Roadster Grill; it looks like the dining area in a fast-food restaurant, only not quite so squeaky clean. The last time I ate there, whoever had bussed my table had neglected to clean up a puddle of spilled soda on the floor underneath it. I ended up walking out with sticky shoes.

But when you taste the food, you tend to forget all about the deficiencies in décor. The Greek dishes taste homemade. If "taste homemade" sounds like a meaningless generalization, let me explain. Or rather, let my tablemate explain.

She ordered the chicken souvlaki salad for lunch. Yes, the strips of chicken were marinated in an herb sauce and grilled until they were nicely charred and still juicy. But it was the vegetables in the salad that she really appreciated.

"I went to the Hobbit Hole and got a Greek salad last week," she said. She found the vegetables lackluster, and the olives were disgustingly mushy. "I tried to send the olives back. They brought me more of the same. They said that's just the way pitted olives get. So why don't they buy unpitted olives?"

"Look at these onions and the way they cut the cucumbers into little bitty pieces," she said, admiring the YiaYia Roadster's salad. "Everything in here is crisp and it looks like it was just chopped. And the unpitted olives are great. It's pretty amazing that a burger joint has better Greek salads than a vegetarian restaurant."

The Hot Rod Grandma's burgers are made with six-ounce machine-formed patties of never-been-frozen beef. There are ten variations available, including a barbecue, avocado and Swiss, and a grilled onion and Swiss melt on rye toast. There's also a buffalo burger, a chicken burger, a turkey burger and a vegetarian burger.

Six ounces is not quite enough meat for my tastes, so I ordered The "Big Buns" Roadster, a double-meat, double-bacon, double-cheese affair to which I added jalapeños for an extra 50 cents. I also added fries and a drink, which brought the total to nearly ten dollars.

It certainly was an impressive-looking burger. I cut it in half and measured the height at the center at three and half inches. The distance between my top and bottom teeth with my mouth wide open is little more than two inches, which makes this is a difficult burger to eat. The sandwich fell apart after three or four bites, and I had to use a knife and fork on the debris. But the flavor was excellent.

The fresh-baked bun was properly toasted. The bacon slices were thin, so they didn't overwhelm the beef. The cheese was American, which is a good choice on a burger, since it melts quickly and helps to cement the pickles, onions and jalapeños to the sandwich. The lettuce, tomatoes and mayo seemed to be in the proper balance.

Unfortunately, I neglected to specify my burger medium rare, so the meat patties were a little dry and overcooked for my taste. I wasn't too impressed with the bright-yellow mustard, either. The French fries were nothing special -- I suggest you ask for the hand-breaded onion rings instead, an additional 40-cent upgrade.

Since the Bellaire Broiler uses frozen hamburger patties, you could make a pretty good case for YiaYia's Roadster's burgers as the best in Bellaire. But that distinction tends to get lost because the restaurant sells so many other fascinating sandwiches.

The "fat dog on a bun" is a must-try for hot dog aficionados. It's made with an oversize sausage that's been scored and grilled -- it looks almost exactly like the kielbasa at Polonia [see "The Measure of Kielbasa," November 2]. The hot dog is then assembled on a big toasted sandwich bun. Be forewarned: Unless otherwise instructed, the restaurant puts ketchup on the dog along with the proper mustard, relish and onions. (They obviously aren't from Chicago.) A Tex-Mex variation called a "bandito dog," accessorized with homemade chili, queso and onions, is also available.

The best sandwich in the house may be the Philly cheese steak. They start with the standard grilled rib eye slices and caramelized onions, but then they automatically add the deluxe options of long-cooked red and green bell peppers and big slices of grilled mushrooms. The sandwich is topped with provolone cheese on a toasted sandwich roll.

This is a highly evolved cheese-steak sandwich. An even more elaborate version called an Italian Philly, made with marinara sauce, is also on the menu. Tomato sauce on a cheese-steak sandwich doesn't appeal to me. Unfortunately my favorite variation, the South Philadelphia Cheez Whiz option, is not offered here. I wonder what a cheese-steak sandwich would taste like with a dash of that chile con queso they use on the bandito dog slathered down the middle?

I haven't tried the oddly named "fish hoagie" or "shrimp hoagie" at Roadster -- both come with lettuce, tomato and tartar sauce and sound like Louisiana poor boys to me. There are a lot of places to get great seafood poor boys in Houston, so I'll skip them here.

The gyro sandwich, on the other hand, is not to be missed. The seasoned beef and lamb gyro meat is grilled crispy and served on a fluffy pita with lettuce, tomatoes, onions and lots of creamy tzatziki sauce. With French fries and a Greek salad, it's a bargain at $7.49.

The Roadster's meatball hoagie is a Greek hero sandwich with a tragic flaw. The sandwich bun is too soft to stand up to the marinara sauce. Which is too bad, because the big, soft, herb-spiked meatballs are wonderful. I picked up a meatball hoagie from the Roadster's to-go window the other day, and by the time I got it home, the sandwich was so soggy it fell apart when I tried to pick it up. Next time, I'll order some of the YiaYia's lovable meatballs in marinara sauce over spaghetti with garlic bread and salad on the side -- another incredible bargain at $6.95, only 50 cents more than the sandwich.

Cheese steak, gyro, hot dog and hamburger fanatics take note: The Greek Grandma with the hot rod has got some sandwiches you need to know about.

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YiaYia's Roadster Grill

5210 Bissonnet
Bellaire, TX 77401


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