Midtown Moussaka

See a slideshow from Harry's kitchen and dining room.

Coffee cups clatter on saucers, silverware clinks across heavy porcelain plates, bacon sizzles and pops on a nearby griddle, laughter bubbles up from table to table across Harry's. It's a Saturday morning, and I'm sitting in a sun-drenched room with a fat blueberry waffle staring up at me and a glass of freshly squeezed orange juice squatting happily next to it. My breakfast companion is tearing animatedly into his Greek omelet, a riot of color on its plate. The day is young, and the food is delicious.

Harry's is a Midtown institution, although you wouldn't know it from the exterior of the restaurant, which was remodeled in 2003. Founded in 1948 by Eugene Pavlovich as a blue-collar, blue-plate joint with a daily steam table, it catered mostly to area construction workers and other working men and women. When Johnny Platsas and his wife, Patricia, bought the restaurant in 1994 from Harry Mickelis — a fellow Greek — they retained the name and the same sense of familial friendliness that permeates every meal here.


Harry's Restaurant 7 a.m. to 2:30 p.m. Saturdays and Sundays. Lunch hours: 11 a.m. to 2:30 p.m. daily.

Blueberry waffle: $5.99

The Larissa Plate: $6.99

Cajun catfish and eggs: $8.49

Spitiko Greek omelet: $8.99

Feta fries: $5.99

Moussaka with two sides: $8.99

Chicken-fried steak with two sides: $7.99

What they did change up when they purchased the place, however, is the food. Johnny Platsas hails from Crete, while his wife comes from Ecuador. The result is a bizarre Greek-South American hybrid menu that also includes steam-table classics at lunch and American standards at breakfast. Yet despite the disparate influences and seemingly unfocused menu, it all works.

At any given breakfast, you can find yourself chowing down on a Churrasco platter — one of my personal favorites, it includes two eggs served with grilled beef skirt steak atop two cheese-stuffed potato patties fried up in achiote oil and a side of spicy peanut sauce — while your companion might be delicately enjoying a Larissa plate, an eggs-and-potatoes dish spiked with copious amounts of feta cheese and fresh parsley, which is named for Harry Mickelis's hometown in Thessaly.

Of course, you can also get a couple of fried eggs and bacon or a bowl of cereal if your tastes don't run toward the exotic at breakfast: Harry's also serves Special K and Kashi. And in true-blue diner fashion, "fried eggs" isn't enough of an order for the old-school waitstaff. They'll ask with a grin if you want those eggs over easy, over medium, over well or sunny side up.

For those interested in a hearty breakfast served by wonderful people in a boisterous, lively dining room, Harry's will strike a chord every single time. I've yet to have a bad experience here, but that's not to say that Harry's doesn't dish up a few duds from time to time.

There are things you learn to avoid and things you learn to gravitate toward at any restaurant. Harry's is no exception. The hash browns are awful. Waffle House is still the hash brown paradigm that all breakfast joints should aspire to, and Harry's poor hash browns don't even come close to ranking. On the other hand, the "home fries" — which are more accurately described as skillet potatoes — are first-rate, especially when topped with feta and parsley, which the kitchen is wont to put on many of the items.

The "maple syrup" here is simply maple-flavored sugar water, despite the kitchen's efforts to do other things right: jalapeños pickled in-house, salsas made fresh each day. The bacon waffle sounds excellent in theory, but in practice it's an abomination and an affront to both waffles and bacon. Stick to the heavenly blueberry waffles, with the batter light and yeasty and plump blueberries suspended throughout.

Lunch at Harry's is a different prospect altogether, and brings with it a different crowd. While breakfast is more of a relaxed — albeit loud and occasionally rowdy — affair, lunch sees a much quieter and somewhat older demographic arrive. The steam table beckons them from downtown, Midtown, Montrose. It's an odd sort of cross between a 39ers meeting and the cafeteria at the Exxon building downtown: Old men telling war stories sit at tables next to middle-aged men and women in business suits. It's an easy­going crowd, and ideal for enjoying whatever Harry's has on the steam table that day.

While you are expected to wait patiently to be seated if you're planning on ordering breakfast — which Harry's serves all day long — you've got it easier if you're just eating lunch. Pick up a tray, go through the line, pay at the end: It's a shorter, tastier, cheaper version of Luby's.

The ten steam-table selections rotate every day, but there are a few things that stay in the rotation daily, like the chicken-fried steak and some iteration of basa fish (pan grilled, baked, blackened, etc.). There's also at least one Greek specialty each day. Each plate special runs anywhere from $8 to $10 and includes two sides and a biscuit or roll. It's a hearty lunch, to say the least.

On a recent afternoon, I grabbed a slice of the moussaka off the steam table along with some rice pilaf and stewed okra. No moussaka in this town has ever come close to the magical stuff served up by the late, great Mykonos, but Harry's offers up a passable imitation. The layers of ground beef and eggplant are effortlessly seasoned and crowned with a thick, creamy layer of fluffy béchamel sauce. The rice pilaf was bland, but once dumped into the rich tomato sauce from the moussaka, it became instantly better. The okra, in its own stewed tomato sauce, was neither too tough nor too slimy and soft; Greeks know how to cook okra just as well as Texans do.

Chicken-fried steak on a subsequent visit was odd and difficult to describe. It was pounded thin like milanesa, perhaps a quarter of an inch thick at the most, and breaded with a lightly seasoned batter that clung to each bite, never once slipping off. But the meat itself had a strangely familiar taste: liver. I like liver and onions even more than I like chicken-fried steak (I can hear the sound of my Texas birth certificate being revoked somewhere), so I inhaled every bite, sopping up the cream gravy with extra bits of biscuit. But would a chicken-fried steak aficionado like Harry's CFS? Probably not. I still have no idea why it tasted like liver, but I'm actually eager to repeat the peculiar experience.

Despite the reliable steam-table lunches, breakfast is still my favorite time to enjoy Harry's. Sitting at one of the simple wooden tables and eating a plate of Cajun catfish and eggs, you can watch longtime waitress MiLena darting from table to table and greeting patrons as if they were her own family, Patricia ringing up customers with a smile at the register, and Johnny Platsas pacing the room with shrewd eyes and sharing tales about life back home in Greece as you enjoy the sparkling hustle and bustle of the morning. If Midtown were a sprawling mansion, Harry's would be its sunny, laid-back breakfast room.

If only the place would serve real maple syrup with its pancakes and waffles, I might never eat breakfast anywhere else.

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