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Photograph by Hilary Schalit

Culinary Tour Guide: Owner Vasili Karagiannopoulus takes customers on a journey through the splendors of Greek cooking.

Going Greek

Vasili's on the Westside continues to bring democracy, Grecian hospitality and plenty of garlic to its Aegean grill classics

By Christina Waters

A TAVERNA on the beach--that's Vasili's. A taverna at festival time when the whole point of life is to eat, drink and laugh. An affordable taverna where all are welcome. Somehow Vasili's substantiates my secret hunch that Greek restaurants provide a livelier form of ethnic dining than all others. Big aromas, big music and absolutely no culinary identity crisis. Greek food is a flamboyant affair--long on rosemary, garlic, lemon and olive oil, short on tidy boundaries and fuss.

The tables at Vasili's are always being arranged and rearranged, like waves on the Mediterranean. A delightful sense of barely controlled chaos rules here, and that feeling grows as the evening wears on, especially on the weekends. Decked out with enough memorabilia to equip several Athenian souvenir shops, Vasili's has achieved a distinctive feel and a loyal crowd of worshippers over the years.

Draped with flags, puppets, pottery, maps, amphorae, bouzoukis, braids of garlic, busts of Venus de Milo and enough Polaroids of the owner to fill his proud mama's scrapbook, Vasili's is as close to a night in Mykonos as it gets.

Given that we go for the irrepressible atmosphere and the excuse to sip pine-scented retsina ($5) that is somehow both terrible and wonderful at the same time, the food at Vasili's is not only better than it needs to be--it's better than ever.

My companion, Sully--a fool for Vasili's lemon-and-pepper- encrusted roast potatoes ($2.95)--went on an a la carte rampage and ordered a skewer of grilled pork shish kebab ($3.45), a pungent horiatiki salad ($3.25) and some garlicky skordalia dip that came with a veritable Parthenon of crusty bread ($3.25). At our charming waitress's suggestion, I ordered an evening special of roast lamb shank ($12.95), which did indeed fall off the bone with tenderness. This terrific entree came with a salad--I ordered the horiatiki too--a field of soft orzo pasta and a plump artichoke on the side.

What a feast! We toasted each bite with the hauntingly astringent retsina. (It's an acquired taste that we've acquired.) The pungent salad--a layering of cucumbers, tomatoes, capers, onions, Greek olives (outstanding!) and feta cheese--is practically a meal in itself. We dipped chunks of bread into the soft potato skordalia so hot with garlic it was almost phosphorescent. Who needs subtle? We both grinned.

My lamb was fabulous. "It tastes just like Greece," said my dinner partner, a man who spent several years on Paros. Succulent and rich under its very light saucing of tomato, it came with a tasty blend of overcooked green beans, peas, onions and pine nuts that reminded me of the delicious food on Crete. The artichoke, drenched in lemon juice, paprika and dill, was huge with flavor. The only concession to California food fashion was a gratuitous leaf of ornamental kale and that ubiquitous slice of orange. The skewered pork was tasty, though I would have liked it a bit less aggressively grilled.

Every single flavor of every dish seemed in harmony with all the others. The herbs and spices, the vegetables and meats, all have an interwoven rationality. They all make sense together, without losing one bit of their wild, mountain quality. So elemental are the flavors of Greek cookery that they appeal to every palate. Certainly ours.

As has become the tradition, in the middle of prime dining time proprietor Vasili Karagiannopoulus made the rounds of tables, smiling, asking how we all liked our dinners. Smiles sprang up as quickly as a second glass of retsina.

Vasili's Greek Food and Barbecue
Address: 1501 Mission St., Santa Cruz
Phone: 831.458.9808
Hours: Lunch weekdays; dinner from 5:30pm. Closed Monday.
Cash only.
Service: *** Plenty of spunk and friendly attitude distinguish the warm staff at Vasili's.
Ambiance: *** Taverna to the core, this oasis of Greek knickknacks and fan mail delivers sensational aromas and a vivacious setting.
Cuisine: **1/2 Bold as Zorba and as bracing as a dip in the Mediterranean, the food has its Grecian formula well in hand. Rustic and authentic.

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From the April 19-26, 2000 issue of Metro Santa Cruz.

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