It's hard not to like Z Café. Then again, like the sleepy forward coast of a comfortable marriage, it's hard to like it without working at it. But you will put forth the effort, because Z, with its sloppily stained black tables, azure trim, black Zs plastered on the walls, and Greek flag for a wall-mural, is a kind of endearing temple to strong Joe and newsprint-smudged fingertips.
That is, it would be if the coffee didn't stink. Our first cup in this counter-service diner was putrid. The second cup from a freshly made pot wasn't much better. Rule No. 1 in charming wall holes is to be fanatical about the coffee. Make sure it's good and stays good throughout the day. It's hard to imagine cheaper insurance in a place where customers hover to soil their fingers reading about shameless Cowboys and sullied city council members.
The eggs have to be good too. And here Z gets it about half right. Huevos rancheros ($5.95), slathered in a delicious house tomatillo sauce, were girded with rubbery eggs and sidetracked by a cluster of mushy, under-seasoned potato chunks, though the plate was carpeted with scraps of supple corn tortilla.
Migas ($5.50) were far better. That same tomatillo sauce was strewn with a generous scattering of jalapeno slices pumping it with zest. Tortilla strips were ample without inundating. But the shreds of yellow cheese atop the dish were insufficiently melted, while the patch of hash browns was a toilsome tangle sewn with raw potato shreds with no seasoning.
This lack of spud spice, like the tepidness of the coffee, is a puzzling oversight. A simple dash of sea salt, black pepper, garlic, oregano, and marjoram would make those potatoes purr while tapping Z's Greek roots.
But maybe what should be used instead of potato cubes or shreds is the potato balls Z serves with its lamb souvlakia ($7.95), a grilled shish kabob with scraps of bell pepper and onion. Z's balls are composed of potato shreds wadded into an oval with herbs around a core of mozzarella, provolone, and cheddar cheeses before the whole thing is rolled in flour and deep-fried. The result is profoundly moist and richly flavored with a delicately crisp crust. Unfortunately the lamb was tough and tasted tired (except for the presence of runaway marinade), as if the meat had been freezer-burned or was simply an inferior cut.
Chicken souvlakia ($5.95) was much better, with a more balanced marinade and moist, chewy chicken chunks.
The Greek omelet ($5.50) with specks of tomato and feta cheese looked like a cheese log with an afternoon oregano beard. The oregano flavor overwhelmed, while the feta flavor was barely discernable. Pie cuts of puffy, moist, warm pita bread were delicious.
Situated in the plot at McMillan and Henderson that was once Alfredo's before that venue moved nearer to Central, Z Café is the first restaurant for Nicolas Zotos, who teethed his way into the restaurant business at his family's restaurant Little Gus', a breakfast and Greek restaurant that once occupied the environs now inhabited by Daddy Jacks on Lower Greenville. Zotos also had stints at Gershwin's, The Green Room, and St. Martins, playing various kitchen and front-of-the-house roles.
In mid-February, Z will stay open past dusk and tweak the menu and the ambience by draping the tables with cloths, knickknacking the dining room with candles and flowers, and offering table service. In the meantime, a relentless attentiveness to coffee pots and potatoes would make all the difference.
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