One of the most indelible images of my time spent in Greece has to be seeing the early morning snorkelers surfacing from the Aegean with live octopi, which they repeatedly smashed against the rocks to both dispatch and tenderize. After being grilled to a nice char, the somewhat-scary-looking tentacles were served for breakfast with nothing more than a drizzle of olive oil and a squeeze of fresh lemon. Sitting outside at a table overlooking some picturesque island harbor, I never dreamed I’d eat better octopus—until I discovered Zorba’s Bar & Grill (4710 Eastern Ave., 410-276-4484).
Opened in 1989, Zorba's is an institution in Greektown, the Southeast Baltimore neighborhood that has been home to a large Greek-American community since the 1930s. Today the area is mostly Hispanic, with only the strip of Eastern Avenue between Macon and Ponca streets containing the remaining Greek businesses. When I asked the owner of the Greek Town Bakery on Eastern Avenue where I could get some good octopus, he pointed directly out his front window at Zorba's across the street.
"The food here is like old-time Greek food," says owner John Kritikos, 57, sitting at the end of the long oak bar that dominates the space as you enter. He emigrated from the Greek island of Karpathos when he was just 21, joining his father and brother, who were already here. Kritikos worked at several restaurants before fulfilling his own American dream and buying Zorba's in 1991. Though the neighborhood has changed, time has stood still in here. The few tables at the back look onto an open kitchen while a staircase to the right leads to another larger dining room. Some framed black and white prints from the 1964 film "Zorba The Greek" starring Anthony Quinn line the walls, along with some old reviews of the restaurant. Bouzouki music blares from the speakers. "We are 100 percent Greek," says Kritikos, with a thick accent, "but not the customers."
"Good?" he pauses to ask a customer, who is working her way through Zorba's special lamb chops ($25.95 for seven), which are marinated overnight in lemon and just a hint of oregano before hitting the grill.
"So good I can't even talk," she says, snickering, with a mouthful of food. After sitting down to dinner, and trying this signature dish ourselves, we have to concur.
But as succulent and juicy as the lamb is, Zorba's takes octopus to a whole new level. Although it's listed as an appetizer on the menu, you get a huge portion ($17.95), "grilled to perfection" as advertised and drizzled with oil and vinegar. It's so tender and meaty that, if not for the suction cups, you'd think you were eating something much more substantial, like pork. The secret to its non-rubbery consistency, according to Kritikos, is boiling the octopus for an hour before grilling it.
Speaking of pork, marinated hunks of spit-roasted butt sizzle in plain view of the customers downstairs. Flavorful and moist, the meat gets pulled apart and piled high on a plate for kontosouvli ($17.95) or is served in the pork souvlaki platter ($16.95), with the requisite lettuce and tomato on a thick pita with garlicky tzatziki, or yogurt-cucumber sauce, and fries on the side.
If you are craving classic Greek comfort food such as moussaka or pastitio (both $11.95), Zorba's serves those dishes as well, though Kritikos humbly says they are "the same as anywhere else." The moussaka features layers of tender eggplant, ground beef, and sliced potatoes topped with a rich béchamel sauce and baked, while the pastitsio, made with noodles, is a Greek version of lasagna. We tried the moussaka, which was good, if not a little on the heavy side.
We also sampled the dolmades ($6.95 for five), which were the biggest stuffed grape leaves I have ever seen, filled with a generous amount of ground beef and rice and topped with the traditional avgolemono sauce made with egg, lemon, and broth. These could have been a meal on its own paired with the rustic "horiatiki salata" ($4-$11.50), or Greek village salad, with chunks of tomato, cucumber, red onion, green peppers, kalamata olives, and a slab of imported feta. The only problem with the salad was that it needed more cheese.
Because fish is another one of Zorba's specialties, we had to sample the branzino, or Mediterranean seabass, a Greek delicacy that has become recently popular on these shores. We ordered ours whole as opposed to filleted, but when it arrived, thoroughly blackened, I feared it had been overcooked. Beneath the crispy skin, however, the fish was flaky and moist, needing only salt and a squeeze of lemon to enhance its own flavor.
Though tempted to try some of the Greek desserts such as baklava ($3) or galaktoboureko ($4), a custard wrapped in phyllo dough, we were way past the point of further consumption and had to throw down the napkins. Next time.
"I always wanted to be a ship's captain as a kid," Kritikos had told me earlier. As we leave on a bustling Friday night and see him chatting with patrons and directing the action on the floor, we think he found something pretty close to that childhood dream—bringing consistently good, rustic Greek fare to Baltimore in the process.