Every time we turn around, Hampden has a new restaurant.
The newest addition to the neighborhood's lineup is Souvlaki, a teeny tiny Greek spot that opened on the Avenue in mid-December. Owned by Dmitri and Elli Taramas (natives of Greece by way of New York), Souvlaki's great food and welcoming vibe give Baltimoreans from all over the city one more reason to head to Hampden.
Scene & Decor Just before 7 o'clock on a chilly Thursday night, most of Souvlaki's tables were filled and the phone rang, repeatedly, with carryout orders. Though it has only been open for a month, Souvlaki has developed a following — many of the diners had obviously been there before.
Souvlaki is small, with just a handful of tables packed into its narrow space and a counter at the back. The food was good enough that the restaurant could get away with lazy, carryout joint decorating, but the Taramases made an effort with the decor.
Pale walls and tables with lime green accents and photographs of Greek beaches give the place a pleasantly beachy, clean feel. Dedicated IKEA shoppers will recognize some of the accessories (and the dishes) — but the space manages to feel more Greek isle than DIY Swedish.
Appetizers We started dinner with a platter of three Greek spreads ($14) of hummus, tzatziki and tyrokafteri. All three were excellent. The hummus was garlicky and thick, the tzatziki well-seasoned, tangy and chunky with cucumber and the tyrokafteri — a thick spicy feta dip — was salty, just spicy enough, and fantastic.
Our only complaint was that we didn't have enough pita triangles for dipping; we ran out of bread after finishing about half the dips. Disappointing but probably for the best, since we were well on our way to filling up before our entrees arrived.
Entrees Souvlaki's menu is fairly brief, including a handful of entree platters, some pita sandwiches and a couple salads. Nothing will surprise Greek food-lovers, but the Taramases do justice to the dishes they offer.
The chicken souvlaki pita ($6.50) was a stellar example of a meal that can be eaten with just one hand. Souvlaki is Greek street food — meat grilled on a skewer. In this case, the grilled chicken, well-seasoned with herbs and flavored with lemon juice, was stuffed in a pita with chopped tomatoes, sliced red onions and french fries, and slathered with spicy feta dip.
The individual ingredients were fresh and flavorful; together, they were even better than they were on their own. We loved every bite.
The bifteki platter ($12.50) was equally satisfying. Bifteki is ground beef, mixed with garlic and spices, and cooked — something like a flat, bunless hamburger. Souvlaki's version was full of flavor and, when mixed with the cool cucumber flavor of tzatziki, which was served on the side, was a fantastic mix of savory and bright.
Also on the side, crispy pita triangles and a pile of fries, about half an inch thick and crispy on the outside, rounded out the meal.
Drinks Souvlaki does not have a liquor license but they do allow BYOB, with no corkage fee. We didn't spot anyone taking advantage of the policy but next time we'll bring our own drinks. Something cool and light. Either beer or white wine would be perfect.
Dessert We finished dinner with an order of kataifi ($4.25), a Greek dessert of nuts and sweet pastry, wrapped in tiny strands of dough, like a tasty bird's nest. The dessert was pulled from a small refrigerator by the counter, where individually wrapped baklava and kataifi sat, ready to buy. The pastry suffered a little for having sat in the fridge; the texture wasn't as delicate as it could have been. But the flavor was nice and overall, we liked it.
Service Souvlaki is a casual, order-at-the-counter spot, though after ordering, we were free to settle into our table. Dmitri Taramas delivered our meals and whisked our plates away when we were finished.
Though the kitchen was obviously busy with carry-out orders, our food arrived quickly and with friendly flourish. Taramas was obviously proud of what he served and he seemed to genuinely enjoy chatting with his customers. Judging by the customers' smiling faces, they all enjoyed those chats — and the food — just as much.
Back story: Dmitri and Elli Taramas opened Souvlaki in mid December, about a year after moving to Baltimore from New York. Dmitri worked in restaurants both in New York and in his native Greece, and both his industry expertise and passion for the food of his homeland shine through at Souvlaki.
Parking: Street parking
Signature dish: The chicken souvlaki pita combines grilled chicken, tomatoes, red onion and french fries in a pita sandwich. Topped with spicy, salty feta dip, the ingredients have fantastic flavor and a fun mix of smooth, chewy and crunchy textures.
Where: 1103 W. 36th St., Baltimore
Contact: 410-812-1519; yoursouvlaki.com
Open: 11:30 a.m. to 10 p.m., Tuesday-Sunday
Credit Cards: All major
Reservations: Not accepted
Bottom line: Souvlaki's great food and enthusiastic, passionate ownership are sure to keep the tiny Hampden spot packed.