Samos doesn't take reservations, doesn't take credit cards and doesn't have a liquor license. Yet it does have plenty of customers. What pulls people into this small, family-run operation is the food.
The kitchen, supervised by chef and owner Nicholas Georgalas, dishes up zesty Greek fare in portions that would feed an All-American football player.
The dozen or so tables split between two dining rooms, one offering a view of the open kitchen, are usually full — occupied by priests, workmen, staff members from nearby Johns Hopkins Bayview Medical Center and extended families. On a recent visit, my wife and I were bracketed by a darling, dark-eyed cherub and his mother sitting behind us and a playful toddler and his grandparents sitting in front of us. Potted plants — philodendrons, I was told — and paintings of Greece decorate the larger dining room. Fancy it is not; family-friendly, yes.
Samos can also be loud. The other night, we heard — whether we wanted to or not — about the unhappy Thanksgiving get-together that a diner at a distant table experienced when he visited his brother and his brother's bratty teens. Ah, Turkey Day with the relatives.
Back to Samos' food: It is plentiful and flavorful. A grilled octopus appetizer ($9.95) is tender, slightly sweet and has just the right amount of charred flavor. The octopus, which I later learned came to East Baltimore from the Mediterranean, was marinated in garlic, vinegar and lemon. Grilled just long enough to crisp the outside yet cook the interior, it was superb, and was almost enough food to be an entree.
The vegetable kebab appetizer ($6.95), a mixture of roast vegetables, was not as exciting.
The other offering that excelled was the Greek platter or pikilia ($19.50). This is a jaunt through the restaurant's kitchen. I can't say "tour," because the menu has a separate listing for a "tour" ($22). The jaunt offered chicken souvlaki, several slices of gyro, spanakopita and dolmades, or stuffed grape leaves. It was served on a bed of rice pilaf and accompanied by a serving of tzatziki, the yogurt and cucumber sauce that, when made correctly (as this one was), makes almost everything other than scrapple taste heavenly. The major difference between the Samos jaunt and its tour is that the tour has the added attractions of lamb chops and calamari.
I am exceptionally fond of gyros, the pressed mixture of lamb and beef that is roasted on a vertical spit. Greeks, I am told, pronounce gyro so it rhymes with "hero." In the lingo of Baltimore, a city that likes its "O's", the pronunciation comes closer to "ji-row." Whatever it is called, the Samos version is winning. I lapped it up.
I pause here to praise the salad, ordinarily a part of the meal that is not worthy of much notice. But Samos' Greek salads, served with platters and made with humble iceberg lettuce, are so crisp and carry other delights such as olives and feta cheese that they deserve plaudits.
Lemons are big players in the Samos kitchen. They help bathe the octopus, they merge with dill to make a sauce that covers the dolmades and, on request, they float atop the glasses of water. I am not Greek, but I am a friend of lemons. I am also cozy with feta cheese and Greek olives. Those ingredients caught my eye in the shrimp plaka platter ($18.75). But this dish, which also consisted of baked jumbo shrimp and a garlic tomato served over pasta, was so large that I couldn't finish it.
As always, I found room for dessert — a pleasing baklava ($3.50) made in the restaurant with the right mixture of chopped walnuts, phyllo dough and a touch of honey.
Our waitress was extremely efficient in the early part of the meal, then seemed to forget about us after the entree. She won points with me, however, when I asked for coffee and she ordered up a fresh pot, brewed, she pointed out, with beans from a local roaster, Pfefferkorn.
Some customers bring their own wine to Samos; most bring a taste for Greek food. Everyone brings a large appetite.
Where: 600 Oldham St.
Contact: 410-675-5292, samosrestaurant.com
Hours: 11 a.m. to 9 p.m., Monday-Saturday.
Credit cards: None. Cash only
[Outstanding: ✭✭✭✭ Good: ✭✭✭ Fair or uneven: ✭✭ Poor: ✭]