10150 Dorchester Road
Entree Prices: Inexpensive
Serving: Lunch and Dinner, Mon.-Sat.
If it merely takes iron guts and hard work to open a successful restaurant in a down economy, then the people at Opa Café, who squeezed their new establishment between a tattoo parlor and a pawn shop in a rundown Summerville strip mall, are as tough as the rocky slopes of the Santorini caldera.
They're oblivious to the fact that today's food snobs are looking for a haute Greek articulacy that's all the rage — a fashionable return to "local authenticity," even if it's conveniently shipped halfway across the world. Presently, top accolades are reserved for creative places like Michael Psilakis' New York temple, Anthos, and even the whitewashed Ouzo lounge of Samos Taverna down the road in Mt. Pleasant, where you can rediscover the lost art of Greek sushi, learn to respect the fiery breath of a tall sip of Raki, and gnaw the suckers off a hot grilled octopus tentacle as big as your head.
Of course, such elite attitudes are usually predicated on the fact that "traditional" Greek-American cuisine can be so cheap and boring. And they have a point. Even in the motherland, where tourism long ago swamped the rest of the economy, you have to look hard to find a place that doesn't seem to use the same prefabricated menu choices. A compulsory tour of the Athenian Plaka leaves you believing that local tavernas have been serving the same souvlaki pita and taramosalata since Alexander left for the East.
Opa just doesn't care about such food snobbery, and neither do I. I eat there at least once a week. In fact, I've resisted writing this review for some time, just to keep the place all to myself a little while longer. Do I care that the cuisine is, for the most part, a perfect facsimile of all those wonderful standards that, to a Greek-American national, read like a box of grandma's kitchen recipe cards? That the décor screams the worst cliché of blue and white, walls hung with enough pictures of blue rooftops and whitewashed villages that you might mistake the place for a travel agency? That a lone jambox in the corner blares loud bouzouki music all day? Hell no. I'm too busy stuffing my face with $5.99 gyros.
I'm digging into platefuls of tzatziki ($4.99) served with warm wedges of pita bread and devouring crispy platefuls of falafel ($5.99). I'm threatening my neighbors if they so much as look at that last stuffed grape leaf, the hand-rolled one dripping with olive oil on the edge of my plate. Let's not even discuss the souvlaki platter ($8.25), which I also will not share.
There are things on the menu that the average Summervillian may not be all that familiar with. A few have glanced across the table with wild trepidation after pondering the term "Horiatiki Salad" ($6.99), a wonderful garden salad, sans lettuce, but overflowing with tomatoes, cucumbers, feta, and onion. The "Soutzoukakia" ($8.75) sound rather alarming too, until you realize that they're simply grandma's spiced meatballs in Greek tomato sauce served over rice.
I keep going back for two reasons: I'm a sucker for Greek street food, having spent many a night in the Cyclades with a belly full of Mythos, but also because even after traveling the length and breadth of the Greek world, from the crags of the Peloponnesus to the gorges of Crete, I've yet to find a better example of Greek home cooking this side of the pond. The people at Opa Café take such pride in their Greek food that they make most of it in-house, scratch cooking from the tzatziki to the grape leaves. I haven't eaten anything that I haven't thoroughly enjoyed, and I'm chalking up a lone report of dry chicken breast to a random kitchen error.
So please forgive me for not trying the tuna salad ($4.99), cheeseburger ($4.50), chopped steak ($10.95), Buffalo wings ($5.99), or jalapeño poppers ($5.99). I'm sure they're just grand. But I like to squint my eyes, when the noonday sun glints off the cars outside and burns in through the plate glass windows. I lean back and it's all indigo blue and whitewash, and the music sounds like the municipal bus from Heraklion to Chania as it bounces down the rocky road — and it's at that time, with the cool tang of yogurt and cucumbers and garlic, that I know Opa Café is real, at least real enough for me, until the next plane leaves for Athens.