Papa Cristo’s Redefines the Borders
~ By RICHARD FOSS ~
What are the Spanish words for souvlaki and gyros?, I wondered. The question arose during a visit to Papa Christo’s, a landmark in the Byzantine Latino Quarter. This neighborhood by Pico and Normandie was heavily Greek during the first half of the 20th century, but became multiethnic in the last few decades. Rather than fight the changes, the easygoing locals celebrate them – the signs marking the BLQ went up in the late 1990’s. If you have a sudden need for a Greek to Spanish translator, you can probably find one on any block.
Or for that matter, in about half the booths at Papa Christo’s, where the large family in front of me debated their order in rapid-fire Spanish while I waited in line. It was amusing to hear phrases like “sopa de avgolemono” and “orden de tzatziki,” to the point where I was distracted when it was my turn at the counter. As usual, I ordered too much – things are inexpensive, and when you’re right there seeing interesting things coming out of the kitchen, there’s the tendency to just point and say, “One of those, and one of those, and one of those…”
So that’s the drill at Papa Christo’s – stand in line and order, take a number, and go to the dining room to await your food while listening to the plaintive strumming of the bouzouki player. Except that if you have any curiosity at all, you’ll stop in the grocery section to eyeball the array of olives, cheeses, oils, breads, wine, all the things that make Greek food wonderful. The Greeks enjoy a simple cuisine of meat, seafood, and vegetables accented by herbs, and the quality of those ingredients is paramount. Between the open kitchen and those racks of authentic food, you know what you’re getting well before the meal hits the table.
Which in this case was horta with beets (4.99) and taramosalata (3.49) for starters, and a fish called Tsipoura (14.99) and roasted lamb (12.99) for main courses. Horta is the Greek word for red chard (and also the name of a weird alien in the original Star Trek series, but this restaurant doesn’t serve sautéed space alien. If you know one that does, please let me know – I’ve been looking for it all of my life). Red chard has a slightly bitter vegetable flavor, beets a sweet fruity flavor, and the combination is delightful, comfort food greens with a little sweet and sour twist. Like many items at Papa Christo’s, this is a Northern Greek dish, with flavors more subtle than the heavy, garlicky cuisine of the South. A word of warning: order this dish, but be sure not to spill it on good clothes, because both vegetables set a stain with alarming speed.
The taramosalata was described as “Greek Caviar,” which isn’t precisely accurate – it’s salted and cured cod roe blended with lemon juice, vinegar, breadcrumbs, and olive oil. It’s a tangy, delightful spread for warm pita bread or the crusty white bread that seem to be served interchangeably depending on the whim of the kitchen, though I presume that if you like one more than the other you can ask for it.
We ordered the starters purely for aesthetic reasons, since the main courses were hefty – a whole good-sized fish in one case, a big plate of roasted lamb in the other, and both with Greek salad, tzatziki sauce for dipping, and roasted potatoes. (The Greeks have taken to potatoes in a big way after at first regarding them with suspicion. After attempts to promote their cultivation came to naught, in 1831 a wily governor ostentatiously arranged that an incoming shipment be placed under armed guard. They were stolen almost immediately and secretly planted, and the rest is culinary history.)
The tsipoura fish was roasted whole, but came off the bones with almost magical ease – field-stripping it was simple, and the flaky, hot meat with just a hint of lemon and salt was delicious. I was a bit less delighted with the lamb, which was tender but cooked a bit past medium rather than medium-rare as I like it. This is the way Greeks like it, though, and in a place as rigorously authentic as this, that’s what matters. It was a satisfying dinner, and though we considered some galaktobouriko for dessert, we just didn’t have room.
To drink, there was wine – other things too, including European soft drinks, but wine was what we wanted. Greek wine has an undeserved bad reputation from the days when the best was kept at home and awful stuff was exported. The good stuff is available in the US now, and though the glassware at Papa Christo’s doesn’t show it off at its best, there some good ones are served by the bottle and the glass.
A few days after dining there, I called Papa Christo’s owner Chrys S. Chrys to ask if there were Spanish names for Greek foods and vice versa, and he informed me that he is used to orders for “torta de gyros” and “brocheta souvlaki.” He also mentioned that the Korean population in the neighborhood is increasing; nevertheless there won’t be any kimchee on his menu – the food will be pure Greek, even though the accents in which it is ordered span the globe.
Papa Christo’s is at 2771 W. Pico in Los Angeles. Parking in rear or street parking, open Tu-Sa 9 AM – 8 PM, Su 9 AM – 4 PM. Beer & wine served. Prix fixe dinner with wine on Thursdays, $24.00. Phone 323-737-2970.