The ‘80s saw the establishment of several authentic Greek restaurants in Omaha that are still flourishing today.
Not a whole lot of other things from the '80s have that kind of longevity. So what is it about the cuisine and the gyro that we love so much?
Bill Sgourakis says that when he and brother George opened Greek Islands in 1983, you could count the number of restaurants on Center Street on one hand. Today, the neighborhood has changed, but the restaurant is mostly the same, save for a few extra grandchildren running around.
I've nicknamed this place Greek Mountains, on account of the mountainous portions, unchanged since the beginning. "Nobody has ever left this place hungry, ever," Sgourakis claims, and I believe him.
Nephew Yianni Sgourakis revealed that nearly everything is made in-house.
I started with the soup du jour, a play on the classic spanakopita, also known as spinach pie. The rich, creamy soup came loaded with feta cheese and spinach. It was a treat on a chilly spring day, but I had to quit after a few bites to make way for the humungous appetizer sampler platter and souvlaki dinner.
You have to have a strategy here in order to try everything.
After a big meal, dessert might not seem plausible, but I decided to follow the great YOLO mantra and sample the house-made baklava with baklava ice cream. I’m glad I did. The thicker-than-usual slab of flaky phyllo dough, chopped nuts, and honey syrup was served warm, and the ice cream cut through the sweetness of the dessert just enough.
According to Nick Poulos of Feta's Gyros, making baklava properly is a long process. He would know: It is made from scratch on the premises of his Miracle Hills restaurant.
Poulos' wanted to bring Greek cuisine to West Omaha, opening first in 2005, and a second location in 2008. Feta's follows a fast casual model, but with a modern feel, and lunchtime sees a daily rush of patrons flocking in for the spicy gyro, topped with a piquant sauce made with cilantro, serrano chili peppers, feta cheese, and tomatoes.
Poulos grew up working in Katie’s Greek Restaurant & Taverna, a staple in the Midtown neighborhood, because his parents are the owners.
In Northwest Omaha, where Midtown restaurant mavens rarely go, Jim and Jennie's Greek Village is no secret to their regulars, who account for most of their business.
Jim and his wife Jennie Anastasiou have been in operation in the same location since 1985. Their expertise is apparent in dishes like souvlaki, the marinated and seasoned chunks of pork loin on a skewer. Several recent visits delivered the same well-seasoned, tender meat grilled to a perfect medium.
Anastasiou urged me to try the saganaki, the kasseri cheese that is flamed with brandy and then extinguished by squeezing lemons, tableside. It’s a specialty that pops up in many Greek restaurants.
On my last visit I ordered several vegetarian appetizers: the spanakopita – one of my favorites – and a newer menu item, the tomato keftedes. “[In Greece] the last few years, we have seen some traditional dishes and appetizers in style again over there,” Anastasiou told me of the fried tomato fritters. “My kids were pressuring me to put them on the menu.”
And, of course, I had a gyro, made from sliced lamb and beef that was nicely crispy and not overly gamey, and topped with tzatziki sauce that was rich with dill.
In a search for the initiator of the ‘80s gyro boom, I turned to John’s Grecian Delight in Bellevue. Here, loyal regulars populate this counter joint where one of the most beloved items is the gyro. Owner John Sakkas explained that while his shop can be tricky to find, it has suited him well over the last 32 years of business. (Insider Tip: Park in the rear of Southroads Mall, and head downstairs.)
I might never quite figure out what it is that makes the gyro so special, and designating a favorite in town would be like choosing a favorite child.
I would never do that, because for Greek restaurants in Omaha, it’s all about family.
Greek Islands is located at 3821 Center Street. Katie’s Greek Restaurant & Taverna is at 119 S. 40th Street. Feta’s Gyros is located at 743 N. 114th Street, with a second location at 14544 West Center Rd. John’s Grecian Delight is at 1001 Fort Crook Rd. North in Bellevue. Jim & Jennie’s Greek Village is at 3026 N. 90th Street.