Atheneos Greek Village Cafe in Mesquite may look to some to be an unimposing storefront tucked away in a shopping center next to a strip of chain restaurants, but this strip mall restaurant comes with a harrowing back-story.
“As a young kid, you want to travel,” owner Emmanuel Mastrogiannopoulos says. “I went to a trade school to become a diesel mechanic for the big vessels that cross the Atlantic. That gave me the opportunity to get paid and travel.”
Mastrogiannopoulos was born in Athens in 1956, a period of political instability. Following a 1967 military coup d'état, a group of generals took control of the Greek government and severely limited the powers of King Constantine II. Constantine II fled Greece after orchestrating a counter coup, but not before a 1973 riot at the Athens Polytechnical Institute spurred massive political change.
“All the [students], we got together and we went to a big university there in Greece and we hung out, some people inside, some people outside, and we start shouting things against the government because we’d had enough,” Mastrogiannopoulos says. “I don’t know how many of us were there, but someone from inside the college asked to … make a space for an ambulance to come because someone was sick.”
The ambulance was filled with police armed with riot gear. They fired teargas and smoke canisters directly into the crowd, killing some and injuring others. Some of the students, including Mastrogiannopoulos and his brother, were able to escape.
“Everything was going relatively OK,” Mastrogiannopoulos says. “But then they sent the army on us. I didn’t see the tank, but we heard it coming. It was so quiet, we heard on top of the pavement, the chains. That’s scary. There were a lot of kids with the Greek flag and everything [inside the university gate], and that tank went right through them.”
Dozen of students died that day.
After finishing trade school in Athens, he started work on a freighter that traveled the Atlantic Ocean and the Great Lakes. A stop in Kenosha, Wisconsin, changed his life.
“I went out to have a drink one time, and I met my wife,” Mastrogiannopoulos says. “We kept in touch for about three years and then I decided to stay [in America].”
After an attempt to live in Greece to be near Mastrogiannopoulos’ family, the two moved from Greece to Texas, his wife’s home. No one in Kenosha or Racine, Wisconsin, according to him, was doing authentic Greek, or even in Mesquite. So he started Atheneos Greek Village Cafe.
He strives to make the menu accessible, to avoid that “It’s all Greek to me” mentality some customers can have when trying new food. His items are relatable, compatible to the average American palate and in some cases, directly compared to other cuisines.
“I have a plate, I call it the skillet, because I like fajitas,” Mastrogiannopoulos says. “I call it the ‘Skillet: Fajita Style’ … I put in the gyro meat with the sauteed veggies, the rice, the chicken, or the pork, or the lamb.”
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Mastrogiannopoulos doesn’t think very much about that day back in 1973, at least not without a bit of crystal-clear hindsight.
“When you’re [young], you don’t think too much about what to do,” Mastrogiannopoulos says. “If you want to do something, you just do it. As you get older, you start overthinking things.”
One thing Mastrogiannopoulos doesn’t overthink, however, is the importance of family and his ability to show off his culture from a corner shop.
Atheneos Greek Village Cafe, 1425 Gross Road, Mesquite