The Olive Tree Greek restaurant quietly closed up shop last month, just the latest in a series of excellent locally owned restaurants to go out of business.
Meanwhile, business is so good at My Big Fat Greek Restaurant, a chain Greek joint, that customers had a brief wait for a table on a Saturday night last month.
Those two facts speak volumes about the state of the Tucson restaurant business. Here's another fact worth noting: The food at My Big Fat Greek Restaurant is excellent, making it the latest chain to come to town that knows what it's doing--and does it very well.
MBFGR gets points for at least being an Arizona chain--the restaurant's Web site (which badly needs a redesign) lists 10 locations, all in the Phoenix metroplex, except for Tucson's River Road location. However, the site also notes that locations are "coming soon" to Texas, New Mexico and Nevada.
The restaurant's décor reminds me of Applebee's, with wood floors, TVs in the corners showing sports, a mixture of tables and booths, a large bar area and, unfortunately, neon beer signs in the windows. The large menu offers what one would expect at a Greek restaurant--pitas, salads, souvlaki dishes and entrées starring lamb, beef, seafood and chicken--as well as burgers, sandwiches, pasta dishes, pizzas and calzones. Prices are reasonable--and every single thing we tried was good or better.
The baba ganoush ($4.95) didn't have as much garlic and spice as I'd like, but the creamy concoction was still a delight when combined with the pieces of soft, fluffy pita bread that are ubiquitous as accompaniments to MBFGR's food. The dolmades (grape leaves with ground beef, $6.95) came warm and were complemented by a light lemon-cream sauce that added just the right amount of tartness. The keftedes (Greek meatballs, $6.95), shaped like stubby cigars, were juicy and delicious. Our only complaint was that there was no way to cleanly join the keftedes with the pita, as the pita pieces were either too small, or the keftedes were too large (take your pick).
And then there's the entertainment portion of the evening, provided by the flaming cheese. MBFGR offers flaming feta and flaming saganaki (each $7.95); we tried the saganaki, and the server presented it by pouring ouzo and metaxa on top of it, shouting, "Opa!" and then lighting the whole thing ablaze. The edible result was rich, with just a trace of sweetness remaining from the spirits. It was a treat, though I do not want to think about how many calories it included.
All of this delicious food--and we're not even to the entrées yet. On visit No. 1, I tried the mousaka (a lasagna-like dish with macaroni and spiced beef, $13.95), while Garrett tried the "award-winning gyro dinner" ($10.95). Greek salads cost an extra $2 with an entrée, and we ordered one to split; it consisted of romaine lettuce with cucumbers, tomatoes, green bell peppers, onion and feta, along with a single kalamata olive. It was a fairly standard rendition of Greek salad, except for the disappointing near-absence of olives.
Garrett absolutely loved his gyro dinner. The thin slices of lamb and beef were typically dry, but a dollop of tzatziki (yogurt sauce) fixed that up, no problem. The spices were applied just right--they complemented, not overwhelmed, the flavor of the meat. My mousaka was also excellent: The eggplant, zucchini, potato, ground beef and meat were all portioned perfectly, and the various, muted flavors combined nicely. There was a bit too much cinnamon for my taste--don't order this dish if the idea of cinnamon in a meat/pasta dish is unappealing--and not quite enough béchamel sauce, leaving one edge of the mousaka dry. Nonetheless, it was a winner.
All entrées come with roasted lemon potatoes (which were rather bland and not so lemony), yellow rice (moist and tasty) and sautéed vegetables (perfectly prepared, with just a hint of crispness) including broccoli, carrots and--much to my surprise--jicama.
As good as those dishes were, the main courses on visit No. 2 were even better. My chicken and lamb souvlaki ($14.95) skewers were fantastic. The chicken, perfectly marinated and perfectly cooked, came alone; the lamb--also perfectly prepared and cooked--came with bell pepper and onion. My only complaint: I wanted more. Meanwhile, Garrett--who loves spanakopita so much that he once ordered it for dessert at the Olive Tree, completely blowing the mind of the waiter--thought that MBFGR's dinner version of the spinach-and-feta pie was very good, even if he did have to clear the rectangular pastry of the bell-pepper pieces that had been placed on top of it. (He, like me, despises bell pepper.)
While the service at MBFGR is quick and friendly, we did notice some annoying lapses of attention. On the first visit, our server tried to bring us our check without asking if we wanted dessert, and she virtually abandoned us after she did bring the check; on visit No. 2, we had to ask for water after being seated. These are minor annoyances, yes, but annoyances nonetheless.
Another annoyance: After perusing the dessert menu and deciding we wanted a piece of the "great Greek chocolate cake," we were informed that it's no longer available. Instead, we got the baklava cheesecake ($5.95), which tasted fine but had nothing to do with baklava other than the presence of some pistachio pieces and shredded wheat. We also tried the baklava itself ($3.95), which was splendid.
I'll miss the Olive Tree, especially for its lovely décor and fantastic service. But the food here is every bit as good--even if My Big Fat Greek Restaurant is a chain.