Editor's note: The Over 21 Club series features Chicago restaurants that have been around for over 21 years. They must be doing something right, so we'll visit them and see why.
314 South Halsted Street, Chicago, IL 60661; (map); 312-726-2407; theparthenon.com
Open Since: 1968
Cost: Saganaki ($5.95), Taramosalata ($5.95); Egg Lemon Soup ($2.25); Gyros ($8.25); Special Combination ($15.45).
When it comes to Greek food, it's all Greek to me! (Cute joke, Dennis. Real cute.) No, but seriously, the first memory I have of Greek food was when my high school drama class took a trip downtown to see a play. We also went for dinner afterwards at a darkly lit restaurant in Greektown, and I was excited to try something brand new. I ordered the lamb, and when I got it, the plate was full of strange gamy meat covered in olive oil and canned tomatoes.
It was my first time eating lamb and Greek food, and my distinct memory was that I hated them both. Years went by, my drama teacher underwent a sex change (true story), and I more or less avoided Greek food after that. But times change, guts grow bigger, mouths get less picky, and now I love lamb and all things food.
But there was a little nagging feeling in the back of my head when I decided to pick The Parthenon. My personal rule is to always try things at least three times before I decide that I hate them, so I decided to jump balls-deep back into Greek food.
All right. So I'm a sucker. I had to order the saganaki ($5.95), otherwise known as the flaming cheese dish. It's just one of those things. But they light it on fire! I love fire! FIRE! And if you screw up with your camera the first time, the waiter will reach back for the brandy and light the cheese back on fire without you even having to ask. An interesting fact, which you can look up: The Parthenon invented the flaming cheese version of saganaki. I had no idea. Go Chicago!
Fried cheese. Glorious, fried, salty cheese, with a small hit of booze and sharp lemon juice, served with crusty bread nearby. It's soft and gooey right when you get it, and it has a crust so caramelized you think you've gotten a piece of cheese crusted with corn flakes. If you order it, eat it quickly. It cools off rapidly, and it turns back into a salty, chewy pumpkin after its wonderful trip to the melted-cheese-princess ball.
If I was going to order something touristy, then I wanted to aim for something that felt a little more down-home Greek also. Taramasolata ($5.95) is a spread of fish eggs that has been whipped with vinegar, olive oil, lemon juice, and sometimes binders of white starch like bread or potato. It's a thick dip that tastes vaguely of fish at the end, and reminded me of a salmon dip you'd get at a party. I liked it, but it is dense and heavy and not something you're going to eat a lot of.
An item that is on The Parthenon's menu all week is avgolemono ($2.25), an egg lemon soup, and it's a lot like a cream of chicken and rice soup with a touch of lemon juice and egg. I would easily classify this as comfort food. There's shredded chicken, white rice, all in a creamy broth that's easy to eat.
All the gyros ($8.25) I've ever had were from those preformed cylinders of meat we see a lot in hot dog stands around Chicago. I knew that people made gyros from scratch, but I'd never had a chance to try any. And wow. I'm hooked. I could taste the spiced blend of lamb and beef, and the tzatziki sauce that comes on the side is like the kind of sauce I think Athena rubs on her face before she goes to sleep.
If you're like me and you want a survey of the land at a restaurant, a combination plate ($15.45) will always help you prepare for next time. Clockwise from the left is: Pastitsio, zucchini, moussaka, dolmades, and roast lamb and potatoes in the center. Don't worry, the waiter had to explain this stuff to me too.
Pastitsio is, as the waiter explained, Greek lasagna. That's not a joke. It really is like lasagna, except with tube noodles (instead of the wavy ones) and a unique cinnamon, nutmeg, and allspice flavored meat sauce. I liked it, but I wish it was just a bit less dry. Moussaka, to me, is also like lasagna, except instead of noodles, you have eggplant. The eggplant suffered from absorbing too much oil, and it shared the same meat sauce as the pastitsio, with nutmeg and cinnamon flavors, it was just the eggplant keeping it down. Dolmades are grape leaves, and these were stuffed with meat and rice and covered in bechamel sauce. The roast leg of lamb was dry, and I just wish it hadn't been cooked so long.
But you know what? I'll be coming back to try more Greek food. My rule of trying things three (or more) times still holds up, even if your other attempts are over a decade later.