Pita in the Park

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See the sights at Niko Niko's Market Square location in our slideshow.

"There is just so much to love on this table right now," I found myself gushing over a recent dinner at the new Niko Niko's in Market Square Park. I don't normally get quite this silly over meals, especially meals I've eaten for most of my life. But there's something special about this little downtown outpost of an old Houston favorite that gets under my skin in a good way, making me giddy and happy each time I eat there.

On the table that night was an assortment of all the kinds of things that Niko Niko's does best: a huge portion of papoutsakia (stuffed eggplant, literally "little shoes"), soft and lemony roasted potatoes, a crispy Greek salad topped with a large square of feta cheese and garlicky dressing, four triangles of warm and fluffy pita bread, a bowl of tangy tzatziki sauce and an immense chicken Philly sandwich served with a heap of house-made potato chips.

My dining companion, who lived in Greece for several years while serving in the Air Force, was right at home as he told me about the little pita stands he and his buddies used to eat at, just outside the base: little mom-and-pop places that served touristy Greek food that was nevertheless delicious. It's the same at Niko Niko's.

At this point, it's no longer about whether or not Niko Niko's is "authentically" Greek. It long ago adapted to Houstonian tastes, and all that matters anymore is whether or not it's delicious. And it is. That's why there's always a line stretching nearly to the parking lot at the Montrose location of the restaurant, which first opened in 1977 with money borrowed by Chrisanthios Fetokakis from fellow Greek restaurateur Pete Pappas.

The new food kiosk in Market Square is a return to form for the Niko Niko's family, which initially sold just gyros out of its little walk-up stand along Montrose Boulevard. Dimitri Fetokakis now owns the restaurant opened by his parents, Chrisanthios and Eleni Fetokakis, Greek immigrants who made the restaurant the beloved Houston institution that it is today. Since purchasing it in 1998, Dimitri has thought about expanding — one initial plan had him opening a Niko Niko's in Austin — but the right opportunity never presented itself until the downtown renovation of Market Square Park.

These days, in the short six months since it's been open, the jovial Dimitri paces outside the restaurant on certain days, earning himself the nickname "Mayor of Market Square." Standing well over six feet tall, with a barrel chest and a thick, black beard, he's hard to miss. Perhaps because there was some initial concern about the line being too long at lunch and the food coming out too slowly when it first opened, he's there to keep a hawk-like eye on things. It hardly seems necessary anymore, as the food comes out quick, hot and fresh, whether you're there for breakfast, lunch or dinner.

My first experience with the Market Square location was over a quick breakfast — or what was meant to be. I ordered two breakfast pitas, not knowing how large they were going to be, and upon seeing the hefty size of each decided to sit down and enjoy them. Sitting in the park that morning felt like a revelation. This is the downtown I'd always hoped to know.

The park is alive once again, like the Market Square of more than a century ago, when Houston's first City Hall and Market House was erected here in 1841. Destroyed twice by fire and rebuilt four different times until the city simply ran out of space in the 1960s, Market Square weathered years of flux and was almost completely empty and unused before finally being revitalized in 2009. It still houses one of the original clocks from the fourth City Hall and Market House on one corner, standing watch as fountains bubble, puppies bark in the adjoining dog park, kids play on the weekends in the grass, and downtown workers amble up to the kiosk and end up staying, like I did, to enjoy the sights and sounds of the city around them.

Breakfast pitas filled to bursting with orange-cinnamon sausage, spinach, hashbrowns, felafel and other items will make you want to stay, too. I remember thinking that day as I ate my way through the felafel pita — the warm, soft bread wrapping easily around the roughly diced felafel rounds and scrambled eggs inside — that in a perfect world, these would be as omnipresent as breakfast tacos or kolaches. They're larger, yes, and perhaps not as easy to transport. But they're every bit as delicious as the finest chorizo taco or sausage kolache — and the unusually named Spartan breakfast pita comes with a fried egg tucked inside, which isn't very spartan at all.

In addition, the food stand is also serving plenty of caffeinated beverages — the industrial-strength Greek coffee is a favorite, as are the cappuccinos topped with a dusting of cinnamon — that add a welcome coffeehouse component to the open-air seating here.

The new Niko Niko's seems to have something for everyone.

If you want breakfast, Niko Niko's has you covered. Coffee and pastries? It offers those too. A surprisingly romantic, candlelit dinner in the park that won't blow your entire paycheck? Yes. And, perhaps most important given its location, an ideal lunchtime destination.

Aside from the breakfast pitas, my favorite thing about the food stand is its smart box lunches. For less than $10, you can walk away with an enormous sandwich — your choice from the menu's selection of six standards, like souvlaki or gyro — as well as a generous helping of pita chips, garlicky hummus and a large cup of tart Greek yogurt with honey and walnuts for dessert. Grab the felafel sandwich or the veggie pita, and you're also looking at a tremendously healthy lunch that will keep you full until well past dinner.

The box lunches are easily transported back to the office, but it's far more fun to sit in the park if you have the time. I have no idea how popular this will be when Houston's scorching summers start suffocating the city around June, but for now it's wonderful to grab your lunch early — between 11 and 11:30 a.m. — and watch as the office workers descend en masse from the skyscrapers and decamp onto the park from all four of its corners. By noon, the line is quite long, but it usually moves quickly.

Dinners are even more pleasant and — in a funny twist — much more accessible than a regular dinner at the original Niko Niko's location. Although that restaurant is now much enlarged, as is the parking lot, there is almost always a wait for parking and for your food. In Market Square, the parking is free after 6 p.m. and you can usually park very easily along one of the four surrounding streets (Travis, Milam, Congress or Preston). And there's hardly ever a wait.

On that night of the papoutsakia and the chicken Philly, I sat grinning like a fool at the lights from the skyscrapers beyond the park, taking in the view between bites of the stuffed eggplant, one of the rotating specials that Niko Niko's brings over from time to time. Soft scents of cinnamon and nutmeg wafted up warmly from the ground beef tucked inside the eggplant, all swaddled under a thick blanket of the béchamel sauce that's one of Niko Niko's greatest accomplishments, creamy and velvety under a barely crispy top that's been broiled ever-so-briefly. The dish isn't too far removed from the restaurant's moussaka — one of my longtime favorites.

I took a few bites of my friend's chicken Philly after he set it down to grab alternating bites of my potatoes and salad, and found it good, although a bit bland for my liking. "The chicken could stand to be seasoned more aggressively," I told him, handing it back.

He just glared at me.

"You can't say this isn't good," he finally said, looking personally affronted.

"It is good!" I sputtered. "It is! I'm just saying...Just a little constructive criticism. Geez." And with that, we both went back to enjoying our meals, him eyeing the sandwich he was devouring with an oddly paternal look now.

That immediate sense of protection people have about the place — staunchly defending a longtime Houston favorite even at the slightest perceived offense — will ensure that the Market Square version of Niko Niko's will be popular off the bat in its first year. But the continued effort and talent put into its wonderful food will hopefully ensure its continued popularity for years to come.


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