Like Mexican before it, Greek food continues to expand into the fast casual arena — a good thing for those who prefer spinach pie to burgers and fries.
So, on a recent Saturday night, we visited The Hungry Greek at one of its two Tampa locations, this one in Westchase in a newish-looking strip center on Race Track Road.
Inside, the restaurant was small, clean and bright with about a half dozen tables. The place was doing a brisk take-out business. The cozy layout allows for watching the chef cook over the wood-burning grill and slice gyro right off a glistening spit of meat.
Patrons order at the counter, where we came across some of the best service we've experienced in a while. The cashier was friendly, knowledgeable about the offerings and even offered to alter a kid's menu item to make it more palatable for our child. Compared to the surly and/or spaced out service we get at so many places, it was nice to see.
On the board behind the counter — in a design universal among fast food restaurants of all culinary genres — all of the menu items are listed. It's a long list of salads, soups, wraps, pitas, sandwiches and a dozen entrees.
We went first with the Spinach Pie, a Greek staple. It came with layers of flaky filo dough filled with spinach and feta flavored with oregano, garlic and a hint of pepper. It is served with a Greek salad and fresh greens on a bed of creamy potato salad.
The chunky and crunchy Horiatiki (it means "village") Salad includes crisp cucumber, tomatoes, red onion, olives, green peppers, beets and potato salad. It's served with a warm soft pita seasoned with olive oil.
For a starter, we also tried the Avgolemono, a lemon-rice chicken soup, which was creamy and bright with the right amount of tartness.
For those looking for a solid and authentic choice, The Hungry Greek offers a substantial gyro pita, which held moist mounds of thin, fresh-sliced gyro and a thick, tart tzatziki sauce of yogurt and cucumbers. It had the right mixture of savory meat and tart and tangy sauce, not to mention sheer mass.
Of course, there's a variety of meats on a stick. The chicken souvlaki has three skewers of marinated chunks of chicken breast grilled over an open flame and served atop seasoned rice. It comes with a soup or salad and pita. Other choices include the beef kabob with grilled chunks of filet and lamb kabob with seasoned lamb, peppers and onions. The chicken souvlaki seemed to be the most popular take-out item on the Saturday night we were there.
On the beverage side of things, the Happy Greek has a limited selection of wine and beer. However they do serve a couple of Greek beers: Marathon and Mythos.
For dessert, we splurged on the Baklava Cheesecake, a chocolate pastry and a triangle of baklava. The cheesecake was almost too sweet. Again, the traditional was the best — the baklava offered just the right ending to the meal, with gooey honey and crunchy nuts layered between flaky filo dough.
On a subsequent visit, we ordered lunch for take-out. When we called in our order, the phone was answered in a friendly manner on the second ring and our order taken quickly. The dolmades were ready when we got there. It included six grape-leaf wrapped bundles of ground meat, rice and tomato and a side Greek salad. The dolmades tasted of garlic, oregano and a hint of lemon.
Father and son team Dino and George Constantinou, who launched The Hungry Greek in 2006, have created an excellent option for those seeking something different out of their fast casual dining experience.
The Hungry Greek
Bottom Line: Fast, casual Greek cooked over a wood burning grill
Where: 12950 Race Track Road, Tampa
Hours: 11 a.m. to 9 p.m. Sunday through Saturday
Credit Cards: All major
Children's Menu: Yes
Alcohol: Wine and beer
Wheelchair Access: Yes
Price: $8 to $12.29
Contact: (813) 814-2707