Yanni's The Little Greek keeps things real

Nothing hoity-toity at authentic Yanni's, a credit-cards free place
2013-08-22T00:00:00Z 2013-08-22T06:59:43Z Yanni's The Little Greek keeps things realKristen Cook Arizona Daily Star Arizona Daily Star
August 22, 2013 12:00 am  • 

If you're looking for high-brow, high-price-tag dining, then you won't be eating at Yanni's The Little Greek.

This isn't the kind of place where you pay $12 for a baked potato on the side, and your server is dressed better than you are.

No, Yanni's is the kind of place where you order at the counter. And, they don't take credit cards. If you don't have a check handy, you can grab cash from the eatery's ATM. Interestingly, if you're writing a check, a sign directs you to make it out directly to the owner.

Yanni's The Little Greek is a reboot of the Kranis family's restaurant of almost the same name. (It was just The Little Greek when it was off East Tanque Verde Road near the Pima County Sheriff's substation nearly 20 years ago.)

Bathed in white and blue with framed photos of Greece and mini capiz shell chandeliers hanging above the tables, Yanni's The Little Greek is charming and comfortable. A flat-screen TV flickers with old Greek favorites snagged from Bookmans or occasionally a contemporary movie like "My Big Fat Greek Wedding."

These days it's Yanni - that's the Greek version of John - and his son, Ryan, who are running the grill.

"We try to keep it small and authentic," says Yanni, who adds his father was a four-star chef who taught him the restaurant ropes. "That's our whole game plan."

Service at the year-old, family-run restaurant is attentive but not uncomfortably hover-y. If your plate still looks pretty full after 20 minutes, someone's going to notice and ask if you'd like something else because, as the Kranises will tell you, they want everyone full and happy.

The eatery is also informal enough that - with the open kitchen visible from nearly every one of the eight inside tables - Yanni will give a heads up when your saganaki appetizer is hitting the skillet.

"Ladies, we're going to flame your cheese."

That's something you don't hear every day.

For those unfamiliar with Flaming Saganaki ($7.95) - and really, every dairy lover ought to be acquainted with this one - a block of kasseri cheese is sauteed in a pan until the outside crisps and the center softly melts.

A mild cheese with a lightly salty flavor reminiscent of Parmesan, the kasseri gets its oomph from Metaxa, a Greek wine-brandy hybrid, and a squeeze of lemon that cuts the richness and adds a tangy citrus spark. Slice off a piece with that lovely crunchy exterior and melty middle and tuck it into a triangle of soft, warm pita bread, and that is pure money.

The menu serves up all the favorites: pastitsio, mousaka, dolmades and an outstanding spanakopita ($6.95 a la carte; $12.95 meal). Buttery, flaky phyllo dough added crispness to the hearty spinach filling flecked with feta and Parmesan. The spanakopita aficionado declared it the best she'd ever had.

Another winner was the Greek-American fusion Zorba hamburger patty sandwich ($8.95). A trio of Greek-spiced patties, a mix of ground beef and lamb seasoned with garlic, onions and fresh parsley, were wrapped in a soft pita along with juicy tomato wedges, raw onions, copious amounts of feta - there can never be too much in our book - and a tzatziki sauce that was lap-it-straight-out-of-the-plastic-container good. Sour cream rather than the traditional yogurt made the cucumber-dill sauce thicker and so much richer.

The accompanying Greek fries were exceptional. Piping hot and beyond crispy, they were well-seasoned with Parmesan, a smidge of feta, oregano and salt. They could be a meal all on their own.

One of the few vegetarian offerings, the Greek spaghetti ($8.95) was on the bland side. It did have a sprinkling of grated kasseri, and more of it would have helped the spaghetti that was sauteed in garlic butter but really didn't taste it. The souvlaki (Greek shishkebobs, essentially) dinner special ($12.95) came with fluffy, flavorful rice pilaf, but the chicken and shrimp were dry, easily fixed with less time on the grill.

Baklava lovers will adore the housemade, sticky-sweet treat ($3.95). Here, the honey-drenched dessert is made with a mix of toasted pecans and walnuts.

This is about the time when many of us get a hankering for some good ol' Greek food since September traditionally means the annual Tucson Greek Festival. Sadly, it's cancelled this year after a devastating fire damaged St. Demetrios Greek Orthodox Church. But, now you know where to grab a Greek bite - any time - when the craving hits.

Review

Yanni's The Little Greek

• Where: 1101 N. Wilmot Road; 298-4735; thelittle greektucson.com

• Hours: 11 a.m.-8 p.m. Mondays-Thursdays; until 9 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays; closed Sundays.

• Noise level: Quiet enough to chat.

• Alcohol: BYOB; wine corking and glasses for a $2 fee per couple.

• Family call: No separate kids menu, but the kitchen will whip up kiddo-sized portions of chicken souvlaki or Greek spaghetti.

• Vegetarian options: A few.

• Gluten-Free: A few.

• Prices: Mostly in the $8.95 and $12.95 range.

Contact Kristen Cook at kcook@azstarnet.com or 573-4194.

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