Greek to Me
You won't find people smashing plates and dancing on tabletops at Maria's. It's not that kind of place. Rather this snug, 52-seat family-run eatery dishes home-cooked Greek taverna fare free of contemporary tweaking. And that's it. Maria Sotiriou's recipes are not likely to inspire Homeric verse, but they aren't meant to. Daughter Angela and her husband Kostas Albanis run the operation now, and like Maria, they seem content just to hear patrons sing its praises, which they have been doing since the restaurant opened in 1973 (as Zorba the Greek for nine years, as Maria's at a different Coral Way locale for 22, and at this address for the past three). Permit me to join the chorus, even if at times my voice emotes only a modicum of passion.
The décor is as unassuming as the food. Diners enter into a small room with a bar and a cluster of tables. A wall to the right opens to a slightly larger space with a similarly plain setting: unadorned tables and chairs plus walls bearing illuminated brass-and-glass lanterns and enlarged photos of white-dome-against-blue-sea Greek island panoramas typical of travel posters.
Maria's reminds me of restaurants I've visited on those Greek islands, where in lieu of ordering from a menu, patrons enter the kitchen, see what's cooking, and point to the items they want. Customers aren't allowed to do that here, but there really is no need to. The succinct bill of fare — a pastiche of pastitsio, spanakopita, gyros, souvlaki, moussaka, and the like — contains nothing American diners can't readily visualize on their own.
There are surely no surprises on the appetizer platter, composed of tzatziki, taramasalata, melitzanosalata, hummus, stuffed grape leaves, and all the makings of a deconstructed Greek salad. Nice spread, but ordering this dish is the gastronomic equivalent of riding a tour bus. It's an economical way of exposing yourself to a varied sampling within a short time frame, but do you really want to dwell equally on the Acropolis and the house where a scene from My Big Fat Greek Wedding was filmed? In the same vein, would you rather have more hummus instead of yogurt with cucumbers and garlic (tzatzkiki)? Are you a little wary of red cod roe spread (taramasalata)? If so, go à la carte (starters are cheap enough, all but two less than $6). This way you can enjoy a full shmear of the smooth, lemon-garlic-ticked chickpea spread, scooped up via soft, warm, wheaty pita circles. And you'll be able to substitute spinach-and-feta spanakopita, whose baked phyllo cap is uniquely crustlike (rather than papery), for melitzanosalata, a.k.a. "Maria's Famous Eggplant Salad," which is so garishly garlicked as to smother even the assertive flavor of charred eggplant.
The two top-tier starters ($8.95 apiece) are hard, salty kefalograviera cheese — flamed tableside — and keftedakia, eight meatballs sized and fried like falafel. The latter pleased via robust seasoning, but were more grease than Greece. Greek salad is on the menu too, but if you're dining with at least one other person (preferably two), the voluminous "village salad" is a better bet — no lettuce, just chunks of the traditional horiatiki ingredients doused in olive oil, red wine vinegar, and oregano. The feta, unfortunately, was crumbled rather than served as one thick slab.
Maria's uses top-quality American lamb, which makes the char-broiled lamb chops and the lamb kebab the most recommendable items. I especially savored the latter — four juicy, exceptionally tasty hunks of skewered meat interspersed with charred onions and green peppers. Roast chicken, though, was a Greek tragedy — dry as the dusty ruins of Sparta and bereft of even a ghost of promised lemon or oregano.
Pastitsio and moussaka are variations on a theme. The former is a casserole of macaroni baked with ground beef, béchamel cream, and tomato sauce; the latter ladles the same sauces between layers of ground beef, potatoes, and eggplant. The moussaka was competent, but nothing worth mentioning on a post card home.
What differentiates Maria's from real Greek tavernas is the dearth of fish freshly pulled from the Mediterranean and simply grilled with sea salt, lemon juice, and maybe rosemary. There are just two fish entrées here: shrimp scampi, and tilapia in garlic cream sauce. Just as well, because I generally don't enjoy eating seafood at a Greek restaurant unless I'm sitting outdoors, by the water, preferably in Greece. I did, however, order the fried calamari, which I no longer think of as something that gets fished, but rather as a generic, ring-shape foodstuff that grows wild (and already breaded) in all restaurant kitchens. Quality, therefore, usually hinges on oil cleanliness and temperature, which in this case were appropriate. I must admit, though, this rendition proved distinguishable from others in that the rings were cut wider, and thus were plusher.
Greek coffee and Greek beers (Athenian/Mythos) are on hand, but there are no Greek wines. Nor any other wines, save a $4.50 glass of house red. I neglected to inquire about the vintage, so you'll have to ask what month it's from yourself.
As I've mentioned, dancing on Maria's tabletops would likely generate more disapproving stares than clap-alongs, so when you get the check, use an alternative means of expressing your joy. Main courses run between $11.95 and $18.95 (except four lamb chops at $22.95), but low beverage/appetizer/dessert prices keep the bottom line in line. Meals here are hefty too — plates piled with the daily vegetable (usually peas dabbed with tomato sauce) and choice of salad, white rice dabbed with tomato sauce, or roasted potatoes dabbed with tomato sauce. Kostas, please: Knock it off with the tomato sauce. Even if it is really, really good, you're using it far too much. And, quite frankly, it isn't really, really good.
Neither was the rice pudding, although it wasn't bad, and exhibited an exuberant dusting of cinnamon across the top. It is a delicious notion just knowing you can still get a homemade dessert for $3. Baklava is probably the big seller here, but I prefer galactobourico, which is similar but ditches the walnuts in favor of custard — the result being a diffusion of the dessert's characteristically dense sweetness.
In the overall scheme of the restaurant business, which encompasses so much money and grandiosity, there's something to be said for the personal touch that only an intimate, family-run eatery can provide. That something is this: Maria's Greek Restaurant has outlasted just about every other dining establishment in town.
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