There are several reasons not to like a place called My Big Fat Greek Restaurant. Before I set foot inside the place, I tried to ignore my preconceptions, but they kept popping up, like the three furies of Greek mythology. Olathe! Chain restaurant! Nia Vardalos movie!
Getting there takes a midtowner about as long as actually traveling to Greece — without the view. And why make the expedition at all when the perfectly fine Tasso's remains in the heart of Kansas City? Then there's the name of the restaurant, a twist on the very successful 2002 movie My Big Fat Greek Wedding.
My Big Fat Greek Restaurant also is a chain, based in Arizona, and it's located in a building that formerly housed a failed Italian franchise, Johnny Carino's.
My concerns weren't helped when my friends and I walked into the dining room at the exact moment that the staff launched into a folk dance, with notably fake enthusiasm, around the main room, clapping and shouting opa! Only after this performance's merciful conclusion did the hostess permit us — I was dining that night with Debbie, Judy and Martha — to be seated at a table. "They were dancing the hora," Judy whispered as we were led to a table upfront, near the exhibition kitchen.
Well, the Greek counterpart, anyway. Opening the menu, I noticed the kind of dish that one might expect on an ersatz Greek menu: a $9 My Big Fat Burger (with a choice of Greek salad or fries). Then another: a Parmesan Ranch Chicken Club with bacon and ranch dressing.
To this restaurant's credit, though, someone is doing a terrific job of educating plebeian suburban palates. No one in the place was eating a burger, and half of the tables in the dining room had ordered the showiest starter on the menu: flaming saganaki.
We had some, too, simply because the presentation wasn't just flashy but potentially dangerous. The servers brought out metal plates with slabs of salty kefalograviera. They splashed the hard cheese with a combination of ouzo and brandy and set it aflame with another boisterous cry of opa! That's not really a word; rather, it's an exclamation of happiness in Greek culture. And after I'd heard it dozens of times during my meal, from every corner of the restaurant, it came to signal something else: migraine!
Still, the saganaki, served with grilled pita, was very good: a mix of flavors that combined the salty cheese, a hint of the booze, and the tart fresh lemon juice used to douse the flames. Though, yes, a tourist dish, it scored higher in my book than the deep-fried patties called zucchini cakes, which were so tasteless, they could have been fried papier-mâché. The hunk of spanakopita — flaky layers of spinach, feta and phyllo pastry — was hard to cut into four pieces but was tasty.
Judy and Martha split the costliest dish on the menu: the Meat Lover's Platter, which was heaped with skewers of pork, chicken and beef souvlaki; a generous slice of pastitsio; a couple of fine lamb chops; and lemon-roasted potatoes. They had looked around the dining room and noticed how many other tables had ordered the platter. This so-called "symposium of ecstasy" (to quote the menu) is one of the restaurant's best-selling dishes, and the outsized combo — served with a Greek salad for two, pita, gyro meat and tsatsiki sauce — could easily feed a family of four.
The meat moussaka I tried wasn't the most luscious I've tasted, I'm sorry to say. It had all the right components: layers of eggplant (and zucchini, an unexpected addition), potatoes, seasoned ground beef and tomato, topped with a not-fluffy-enough béchamel. It was a hearty casserole but no opa! inducer. The pastitsio — a Greek variation on the familiar lasagna theme — was delicious, with ground beef delicately spiced with cinnamon and oregano.
My own dinner, beautifully grilled lamb souvlaki, was succulent and tender and surrounded by a veritable Acropolis of roasted potatoes slathered in this restaurant's creamy lemon sauce. If I'd had any concerns about this restaurant being an unlikely tenant of a sprawling Kansas shopping center (which also boasts a fast-casual Mr. Gyros Greek Food and Pastry), the menu set me straight: This is a solid meat-and-potatoes restaurant.
The server raved about the house-made baklava. It was visually scrumptious but too damned nutty — too dry to cut or even comfortably eat.
Things were less chaotic on my second visit, but it was a weeknight. The dining room was nearly empty, which meant fewer flaming platters of saganaki — what's the insurance liability on that, I wonder — and only one "performance" of the black-clad servers grabbing one another's shoulders and clapping and dancing to the Never on Sunday theme song.
It was just Carol and me on that visit, and we stuffed ourselves silly long before our dinners arrived. We ordered the restaurant's overstuffed dolmades, and the ground-beef filling all but burst from the marinated grape leaves. I'm not sure what I think of tyrokafteri — a spreadable concoction of feta, olive oil and red-hot chili peppers that was new to me. It was pleasant enough on wedges of pita, but I think I might prefer it baked inside a chicken breast or as a filling for deviled eggs.
The lamb chops here were superb: gorgeously seasoned and broiled exactly to temperature so they were crispy on the exterior but still moist and juicy.
Almost every restaurant in town has some variation on a "slider" burger, so why would My Big Fat Greek Restaurant be any different? The two sandwiches on each order were far too large to be sliders, with buns of traditional burger size holding heaps of gyro-sliced lamb and beef, an onion ring and a spoonful of tsatsiki sauce. The gyro meat here was a shade too dry, but the slider got points for sheer quantity, if not taste.
One of my favorite lines from My Big Fat Greek Wedding is said by the mother, played by Lainie Kazan, who snaps at a child: "Nico! Don't play with your food. When I was your age, we didn't have food." Actually, the distinctive cuisine we call Greek has existed, in some form, since the earliest days of civilization. We've always had it in Kansas City, but maybe it takes a new contender in the metro to prove how special these dishes really are.