Restaurant Reviews

My Big Fat Greek Moussaka

With its soaring wood-beamed ceiling and stately stone walls, Yia Yia Mary's on San Felipe is the Parthenon of pita sandwiches. Looking out over the enormous dining room, it seems the blue-and-white-checkered tablecloths go on forever. On my two visits to Yia Yia Mary's, a large array of televisions were tuned to various sports events, and a big crowd was on hand in both the restaurant and the bar.

The atmosphere of this Galleria Greek hangout has evolved considerably since the restaurant opened two and a half years ago. The noise level, said to be unbearable in the early days, was dampened with carpeting in the dining room. The fast-food, walk-up counter concept also was abandoned in favor of more traditional table service.

"Yia Yia" is Greek for "Grandma." The restaurant is named after the Pappas brothers' grandmother Mary. Several photos of her hang on the walls. If you thought the Pappas boys were craven profit mongers who exploited other people's cultures, Yia Yia Mary's will make you think again. Here, the Pappas brothers have taken their brilliant knack for reducing a cuisine to an oversize platter of cheap ingredients and turned it on their own Greek-American culture. And as usual, the result is lots of business.

The best thing to order at Yia Yia Mary's is the appetizer sampler. It includes a basket of pita-bread slices, olives and five dips. The thick rounds of pita served here are a little disappointing compared to the thin and crusty flatbreads served in Houston's Middle Eastern restaurants. But the dips are outstanding.

My favorite was the creamy, caviar-flavored taramosalata. This dip is traditionally made with salted and cured carp roe in Greece. American versions usually use cheaper cod roe blended with olive oil, lemon juice, onions, garlic and dried pita crumbs. Yia Yia Mary's was excellent.

The most unusual dip on the platter was the thick, rich puree of garlic, mashed potatoes and extra-virgin olive oil called skordalia, which I had encountered before only as a sauce. The other big surprise was the shockingly tangy red pepper dip made with lots of creamy feta and sweet roasted peppers. A light and fluffy hummus and a simple but delicious roasted eggplant dip with garlic and olive oil rounded out the choices.

Another appetizer assortment called the Yia Yia sampler was dominated by what looked like half a pound of feta in a bowl of olive oil. You eat the feta on pieces of warm pita bread, which come in a basket on the side. Also included on this sampler plate were a couple of spanakopita triangles, baked phyllo pastries stuffed with chopped spinach; and two tiropita triangles, another type of phyllo-dough pastry filled with herbed feta. There were also two dolmades -- grape leaves stuffed with meat and rice.

The individual elements of the Yia Yia sampler were all good by themselves, but by the time you eat all that pita bread, feta and pastry dough, you're maxed out on the bread and cheese. You certainly aren't in the mood for a sandwich.

And sandwiches are the main attraction at Yia Yia Mary's. The vertical rotisserie-cooked lamb and beef loaf known as "gyro meat" here is the same as what you'd find at countless gyro stands across the city. The gyro sandwich comes on a warm pita round with tzatziki (yogurt and cucumber) sauce, onions and tomatoes. The thick, piping-hot french fries are extra, but don't miss them -- they're outstanding.

The gyro sandwich basket with fries is just the sort of meal you want to eat while watching the Astros on TV, and at Yia Yia Mary's, the television sets are omnipresent. There are also rotisserie beef, rotisserie lamb and beef-and-chicken souvlaki pita sandwiches on the menu, but none measures up to the gyro. The chicken souvlaki sandwich, which comes with extremely plain white meat, was too boring to finish.

The beef souvlaki over a salad proved doubly disappointing. The meat chunks were tender but lacked seasoning. And the skimpy lettuce and tomato bowl was a sorry excuse for a Greek salad. A side salad ordered with an entrée turned out to be iceberg, tomato, a little feta and a couple of pickled peppers. Yia Yia Mary must not have been a vegetarian.

There's a Greek science-fiction film called The Attack of the Giant Mousaka that tells the story of a huge chunk of moussaka that gets zapped by aliens, grows to tremendous size and attacks Athens. The movie's hero, a transvestite, tries to stop the greasy devastation by enlisting gay scientists in pink lab coats to determine the motivations of the eggplant dish.

If only the moussaka at Yia Yia Mary's were that interesting. The layer of eggplant and the béchamel are okay, but the thick layer of ground meat isn't bound with enough tomato sauce to bring the dish together. It tastes like fried eggplant and congealed white sauce with a pile of Pappasito's taco filling underneath.

If you're interested in what moussaka is supposed to taste like, it's only a short drive to Alexander the Great Greek Restaurant on Sage, where the ground meat in the moussaka is extremely moist and delightfully seasoned with cinnamon and peppers.

I asked our waiter, a blond-haired youngster, how to pronounce moussaka -- is it "MOO-sah-kah" or "moo-SAH-kah"? He said he didn't know. But he noticed our ketchup bottle was only half full so he grabbed it and promised to come back with a full one, thus avoiding any more pesky questions about Greek food.

The fresh-scrubbed college kids who work as servers at Yia Yia Mary's make it possible for xenophobic Houstonians to eat Greek food without having to enter a hive of swarthy foreigners. Just look at the larger-than-life personalities at other local Greek restaurants and you begin to understand the Pappas brothers' genius for connecting with the mainstream.

Go to Bibas One's a Meal on Alabama, and ask John Katsimikis, the cantankerous mustachioed Greek waiter, for some hummus, and you'll get a fireworks display and a history lesson about Arabs and Greeks that will curl your hair. (See "Houston's Food Nazis," by Brian McManus, May 4.)

At Alexander the Great Greek Restaurant, opinionated, ponytailed owner John Gioldasis sits by the front door arguing philosophy all day. And on weekends, virtuoso bouzouki player George Kitidis performs while a sexy belly dancer works the crowd for dollar bills.

Niko Niko's dashing owner, Dimitrios Fetokakis, is a charmer with a well-groomed beard and a large following in Montrose. Women have been known to flirt with him shamelessly while he attempts to take their orders. Thank goodness his mother is still around to make him behave.

At Yia Yia Mary's, there are some nice pictures of the Pappas brothers' grandmother on the wall. And she even stops by and visits the restaurant sometimes, according to our waiter. But I doubt she talks to strangers.

It may be Greek, but it's still a Pappas Bros. restaurant, after all: a big, efficient, impersonal operation where the sandwiches come in plastic baskets, the bathrooms are always spotless, and you don't have to deal with any colorful personalities.

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Robb Walsh
Contact: Robb Walsh