Greek restaurants in metro Atlanta tend to come in two varieties: Either it’s the kind of place where the wait staff boisterously interact with patrons and rush flaming platters of saganaki (cheese flambe appetizer) to tables or it’s a diner that offers a hybrid of American, Italian and Greek food. In between are the occasional cozy walk-ins and street food-style vendors pushing souvlaki (meat skewers) and greasy gyros wraps.
Papouli’s Mediterranean Cafe and Market in Alpharetta has the menu and atmosphere of a Greek diner, but it operates like a walk-in. Its first location was opened in Macon in 1986 by Chicago transplants of Greek heritage. The restaurant certainly shows its American influence; overall there does not seem to be a whole lot that translates well.
It’s unfortunate because Papouli’s smells wonderful when you walk through the doors. An attractively staged market sits at the entrance, stocked with imported Mediterranean foodstuffs. Thereafter it seems a quick, no-frills setting with ambitions of franchising are the intent. Orders are taken at the counter, sodas and silverware are self-serve and food arrives on disposable ware.
Chicken and beef/lamb shavings for the restaurant’s gyro plates ($8.35 regular, $10.35 large) are dry and cold, and stuffed into equally cold discs of pita. The avgolemono soup (chicken, lemon and rice, $3.49) is satisfactory but similar to the watery, generic version that comes out of a can. My preferred style of avgolemono is more velvety in texture and heartier in flavor. Gumball-size falafels ($1.99 for six, $3.50 for 12) are served cold and are the sourest versions of chickpea patties I have ever had. An order of baba ghanoush (roasted eggplant dip, $3.50) is a tad better, but also more sour than I prefer.
Orders of pastitsio (Greek-style lasagna made with macaroni and beef and topped with a creamy béchamel sauce, $8.99) and moussaka (like the pastitsio, but substitute potato and eggplant for the macaroni, $8.99) are bland and overcooked. The only discernible flavor in either is the nutmeg sprinkled on top.
So do I like anything at Papouli’s? Yes, I do. The lamb souvlaki plate ($11.99) — skewers of lamb and vegetables resting on a fluffy bed of rice pilaf — is tender, simply seasoned with salt and has a smoky char-grilled flavor that appeals to my inner carnivore. The crisp Apollo brand feta topping my side of Greek salad is some of the best I’ve tasted in a while.
Overall, if aspirations are indeed to serve diners from more venues all over America, I hope Papouli’s puts a bit more thought and effort into the execution — starting with the Alpharetta spot. Until then, I’m not sure I will be rushing to a new location just yet.Papouli’s Mediterranean Cafe and Market 3070 Windward Plaza, Suite C, Alpharetta , 770-442-8884 Food: Casual Greek and Greek-American fare such as gyro sandwiches, kebabs and moussaka Service: Satisfactory, but mostly self-serve. Best dishes: Lamb souvlaki, avgolemono (chicken and rice soup), baba ghanoush (roasted eggplant dip) Vegetarian selections: A variety of Mediterranean-influenced vegetable appetizers, soup, salads and entrees Credit cards: Visa, MasterCard, American Express, Discover Hours: 11 a.m.-9 p.m. Mondays-Sundays Children: yes Parking: in lot Reservations: no Wheelchair access: yes Smoking: no Noise level: moderate Patio: no Takeout: yes