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Hellenos in Hallandale

Joe Rocco

Margarita Morfidis gets up at the crack of dawn seven days a week so she'll be in the kitchen at Thira by 8 a.m. She cranks up the radio, divvies the day's work among her small kitchen staff, and within a few minutes, she's up to her elbows in spinach and feta. Morfidis has to pull together enough food to last through a busy lunchtime crowd, the early-bird crew, and her last, late-lingering midnight customers. "By the end of the day, everything's all gone," she says. "There's nothing left. Then I start all over again."

This 45-year-old mother of three spent 12 years running Subway franchises in Deerfield Beach and Hialeah with her husband, Kostas, and sons George, Lazaros, and Dimitri, so she knows how to cope with a fast pace and high turnover. She and Kostas, who hails from Kavala, a major fishing port in Macedonia, bought Gusto's sports bar -- a big, double room with an outdoor patio -- on Federal Highway last winter. They remodeled it, leaving the gargantuan bar in the center but adding Mediterranean touches; the pretty terra cotta pavers at the entrance, for instance, are new.

"I married early and raised three boys; that's how I learned to cook," Morfidis says. She's of Greek heritage, but it was "Kostas' mom who taught me the traditional Greek dishes," she adds. Her generous menu at Thira includes the classics: spanakopita, moussaka, souvlaki, roasted potatoes, giant prawns, scordalia. It's a menu dominated by appetizers (mezedes) -- dozens of vegetarian items, seafood plates, and salads -- plus a good selection of lamb, pork, beef, chicken, and fish entrées.

Just two months old, the place is already serving several hundred customers a day; it's so busy, it generally won't take reservations on weekends.

Greek restaurants are a hearty tradition in the United States, serving inexpensive family-style meals to hungry throngs. You know the ubiquitous Greek diner, that busy burger, omelet, and meatloaf place -- with lemon meringue and cherry pies rotating in a case -- which also just happens to serve moussaka, rice pudding, and gyros (Mastori's in Bordentown, New Jersey, is one old and famous example; Lester's in Fort Lauderdale is our local version). Thira is a giant step up from the common Greek flapjack palace -- no fried eggs and hot dogs are served here -- but it still harks back to its Greek roots. Portions are heavy and huge, the menu's vast, and it's all easy on the wallet, if not the waistline.

Places like Thira are an American invention -- you won't find them in the old country. The U.S. rendition brings together the foodstuffs of separate Greek eateries. On the islands, tavernas serve the hearty pot dishes like moussaka; psistaries specialize in grilled meats; and you get your pites, like the wonderful spinach-stuffed filo pastries called spanakopita, from the village bakery or street vendor (or even better, at home, where every family has its own version).

Greek food is traditionally lighter and fresher than the stuff we Americans get: Restaurateurs here have apparently adapted to our fat, salt, and sugar cravings and our insatiable appetites. It's hard to rival Greece's sun-ripened tomatoes and wild onions, the shrimp and fish pulled daily from the sea, oregano spreading on the mountainsides, and lemons plucked from a backyard tree. That's a long way of saying an American Greek restaurant has to be judged on its own terms. If you're comparing it to the unforgettable late-afternoon meal you had at some remote café while hitching through Macedonia, you're going to be disappointed.

But you won't go away hungry. At Thira, your meal begins with a complimentary basket of country-style whole-wheat bread and a dish of chickpea hummus. This bread, I'm guessing, is a version of the whole-wheat village loaves traditionally made once a week by Greek housewives, usually with a sourdough starter. Thira's is on the sweet side and doesn't complement the garlicky and somewhat uninspired hummus too well. We thought they'd be better off serving a good pita. We also ordered a couple of glasses of thin Greek wine, Kreitikos Boutari ($6 for red or white), which came served in tumblers, taverna-style.

You've never seen a spanakopita ($6) like the one that arrived with our appetizers -- a gigantic golden wedge of pure deliciousness. The flaky, buttery filo pastry was magnificently crumbly; the salty feta cheese was a shot of adrenaline to a mild filling of spinach, onion, dill, and parsley. Fabulous. We also loved the wonderful loukaniko sausages with sweet, grilled red peppers ($5). These lamb and pork sausages aren't homemade at Thira -- that would be too much to ask -- but they're still fresh and flavorful, exuding hints of orange zest, wine, cinnamon, anise, and allspice. A plate of grilled octopus ($9) was excellent too -- tender and silky, lightly charred, tangy with lemon and oregano's mild, green bitterness. A fresh horiatiki salad ($6 small, $11 large) of tomatoes, cucumber, peppers, onions, and olives, tossed with feta cheese, was refreshing if undistinguished.

Here's where things got rough. The portions of the appetizers (no "small plates," these) are so big that anything that follows is an anticlimax. The four of us could have trotted home cheerful and sated. When our entrées arrived, each was enough to make two or three meals. My moussaka ($12) was clearly impossible. This concoction must have weighed five pounds; it rose before me like the cutaway view of some arctic geological formation -- a layer of potato topped with a layer of eggplant, over that a layer of ground beef, over that some zucchini, and then a snowcap of béchamel sauce so thick it was like a throwback to the days before global warming. I suggest it for hungry he-men only or for families of five. The two bites I could manage tasted good, if insanely rich, except for some bitterness in the eggplant.

We had a similar dilemma with the kleftiko ($16), a house specialty of spice-rubbed lamb, from a secret family recipe. Margarita Morfidis, who's a vegetarian, told me this is her favorite dish to make. Which is strange, because it's so fervently, unabashedly animal. A slow-roasted rib rack, plus what might have been a boneless shank, had the texture of "a Yankee pot roast," one of my party noted. It was exuberantly spicy, if a little gamey and very fatty (probably not your infant, milk-fed lamb). The meat was served with crusty roast potatoes and a mushy medley of green beans and peas. Enough for three meals.

The other two of us were very happy with marinated filet mignon kebabs ($16) and pork tenderloin souvlaki ($14). The grilled chunks of herbed souvlaki were served kebab-style, not as a sandwich rolled in pita, like the common street food. Both were tender and full of bright flavors -- fresh herbs, wine, pepper.

We split one dessert: a chilled rice pudding with cinnamon ($4) that was cool, creamy, and delicious, and a thick Greek -- not Turkish! -- coffee ($3) that can dose unsuspecting drinkers with the sludgy grounds at the bottom of the cup, so beware. I've heard that Margarita's ekmek, syrup-soaked wafers with custard, almonds, and whipped cream, is a special treat. Save room for it.

Final analysis? The place is still working out its kinks; the incredibly spacey young hostess at the door -- almost comically inept -- was one of them. But for a neighborhood restaurant that's been open only a couple of months and is already serving a big crowd, it's solid. The appetizers are excellent, the entrées uneven but improvable. This is food that gives incredibly good value. Once the Morfidis family has a few more months to fine-tune its act, Thira might turn out to be a real winner. While they're getting that experience under their belts, we'll be loosening ours.

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miles
Thira Taste of the Greek Islands

100 S. Federal Highway
Hallandale Beach, FL 33009

954-454-9676

www.thirarestaurant.com


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