Hole-in-the-wall treasure

A hole-in-the-wall can be dark, musty, grimy, and probably not the kind of place you'd go to impress someone on a first date, or to establish ties with a new boss or client. But if you rummage around those holes a little, minding where the corroded wiring and the rat carcass are, you just might find some treasure. At that point, you can start bringing friends and acquaintances, carefully guiding them to the booty.

This is exactly how my first visit to Tasty Greek felt--as though I were sticking my hand in a Sheetrock orifice in search of treasure without the benefit of heavy gloves or adequate health insurance. The spinach-dip shade of filmy linoleum tiles on the floor looked as if they had been impregnated with decades of dust. The rough-hewn wood wall paneling accented with mirrors resembled a stab at the cowboy-discotheque school of interior design. Confusing this artistic vein a bit were rows of framed, faded posters and photos of Mediterranean scenes.

Sloppily wiped table coverings hold red, tulip-shaped bowl candles with tattered white plastic mesh on the outside, square dishes with ketchup packets, and bud vases with plastic flowers. As for the bathroom, let me just say there are couple of gas stations nearby.

At the back of the restaurant is a counter area where customers place and pay for orders during lunch. A chaotic table-service of sorts seems to rule the evening.

Tasty Greek is operated by longtime Dallas restaurateur Khalil Amr, who in the '70s and '80s operated several restaurants in the metroplex including Khalil's in Highland Park Village, Khalil's Beirut in Addison, and La Deli by Khalil in Las Colinas. He quit the restaurant business in 1986 following an illness and started up again in 1994 after taking over Tasty Greek in Carrollton.

A native of Lebanon and a Southern Methodist University engineering graduate, Khalil says he gathered his culinary knowledge living abroad in France, Greece, and England as a project engineer for Kimberly Clark. While he doesn't appear to have learned much about housekeeping, he certainly seems to have picked up some flavor tricks.

Khalil's lentil soup--with a clean, rich taste; tender, firm lentils; and seasonings of lemon, garlic, onions, cumin, coriander, salt, and white pepper--is among the best you'll find in Dallas. He says the cumin is added not so much for flavoring, but for flatus absorption. "You have to be a doctor to be a cook," he asserts.

The house salad, however, was a big disappointment, loaded with fresh, crisp lettuce plus two faded, waxy tomato wedges, crumbled feta, and a single kalamata. The watery dressing was desperately weak in flavor.

But the entrees quickly blotted out any short-term disappointments. The Khalil's special plate, a Lebanese-Greek assortment of shish kabob, kafta, and gyros, represented the best versions of these items ever tasted in Dallas. Especially delicious was the kafta--a simple creation of ground beef rolled with parsley, onions, and seasonings--which was supple, firm, juicy, and loaded with rich meat flavor. A row of rich, succulent tenderloin cubes, the kabob was equally compelling, and the gyros, slices of lean beef and lamb, were well seasoned and void of the grease and gristle that so often afflict this preparation. A lively cucumber yogurt sauce and warm, tender slices of moist pita completed the plate.

Chicken souvlaki, chicken breast in a spiced marinade that's char-grilled, was slightly dry and a bit over-seasoned, muddling the mild chicken flavor. But a side of stewed cubed yellow squash and zucchini with tomato, onion, and garlic, had a mild spiciness and a delicate nuttiness that blended richly.

One of Khalil's own creations, orange roughy fish in pita, should be a classic. This sandwich was loaded with moist, flaky fish flush with a clean nuttiness lent from a dribbling of tahini sauce made from ground sesame. Accented with lettuce, the whole thing was wrapped in a fluffy, soft pita.

The moussaka plate plunged into mediocrity, however. This mixture of eggplant, ground lamb, onions, tomato, and mushrooms topped with a dry, gummy tomato sauce, was overcooked and served in a puddle of oil, creating a melange of unappealingly viscous textures and mumbling flavors.

A bowl of lemon rice soup was also a disappointment. With a thick, creamy consistency, the soup had patches of hardening film on the top and an overbearing use of salt and pepper.

Several items on Tasty Greek's menu are standouts. But it's a shame Khalil isn't as fastidious about his dining room as he appears to be with his food. There is no excuse for grimy bathrooms, unswept floors, or tables that aren't thoroughly wiped after each guest. It hasn't reached the level of offensiveness, but it certainly is disconcerting. Even the perception of grime in a restaurant can have a devastating impact on the dining experience. Which is why this venue is a genuine hole-in-the-wall adventure, one that might be best explored "to go."

If you're going to run a decent hole-in-the-wall, you might as well make it a family of perforations. La Deli, a new Lebanese-Mediterranean restaurant in Lewisville, is owned and operated by Khalil Amr's daughter Fadin and her chef husband, Walid Amro, who grew up in the restaurant business in Lebanon.

Formerly a pizza parlor with far too many pizza props still in evidence (red awnings, a defunct salad bar), La Deli is certainly cleaner than Tasty Greek, but it still suffers from an inattention to cleanliness with unappealing restrooms, soiled carpets, and an accumulation of debris under the booths. But these details still can't swamp the handful of well-prepared dishes.

La Deli's maza plate, a collection of Lebanese appetizers, is simply the best assortment of eats you are likely to find in the metroplex. The hummus is creamy, light, and clean while the tabbouleh is crisp, lively, and well balanced. The labni, yogurt thickened through cheese cloth, is delicately creamy with an understated, smoothly dispersed tang, while the baba ghanouj, grilled eggplant blended with tahini, lemon, and garlic, proffered a smooth smokiness and a quietly forceful bite. Tender and juicy, the kafta asserted with a punchy blend of seasonings--almost like a sausage, but with more finesse. Falafel, deep-fried croquettes of ground chickpeas, were crunchy on the outside, but moist and fluffy on the inside and heartily dribbled with a nutty tahini sauce. The whole thing was garnished with plump, tender Greek olives and pickled turnip, which, sidestepping the balanced character of the rest of the plate, was overly salty and a little woody. The only disappointments were the grape leaves stuffed with rice and onion, which suffered from tough, chewy leaves.

Equally worthy was the shish tawook, which was not only among the best preparations of this dish ever encountered, but one of the best treatments of chicken itself. Thick cubes of succulent, sweet chicken with piquant seasonings including allspice, pepper, ground ginger, and ground clove were luxurious in the mouth. Firm, juicy mushrooms rounded out the flavors, while a side of rice and vermicelli dusted with cinnamon added an exotic heartiness to the plate.

But then things gradually slipped. The lentil soup, with mushy, overcooked lentils, suffered from a lack of dimension and substantive flavor. (Maybe they should pilfer dad's recipe.) And the salads, with chopped head lettuce, were limp and mushy, though the dressing was good.

The shawarma is most likely an acquired taste, and in all fairness, I was warned of its distinctly sharp sourness and desiccated mouth feel. The beef is marinated overnight in vinegar and spices before it's broiled and sliced. The marinade is so potent that it dissolves the fat, coloring the meat with pungent tang while making it dry and chewy. It's spread generously with tahini, but this does little for approachability, at least from the perspective of my culturally programmed palate.

Served over rice and vermicelli, the lamb kabobs were tough and chewy, but with a mild flavor. A side of grilled veggies--onion, tomato, and bell pepper--suffered from overindulgent lubrication.

Equally disappointing was the shrimp. While accented with a dusting of provocative shish tawook seasonings, it was marred by dry, shriveled crustaceans void of clean, succulent sea flavors. But the densely rich lady fingers--phyllo, honey, and cashews dusted with ground pistachios--made for a delicately satisfying finale, aptly capped with a tiny cup of plushly muddy Turkish coffee.

La Deli is a true hole-in-the-wall, albeit one cleanly rendered with a power tool. It may not have as many menu treasures as Tasty Greek, but the ones it does hold glisten as brightly as any in the metroplex.

Tasty Greek. 1906-A Belt Line Road and Josey Lane, Carrollton; (972) 416-7884. Open for lunch 11 a.m.-3 p.m. Monday-Saturday; dinner 5 p.m.-9 p.m. Monday-Saturday. Closed Sunday.

La Deli. Round Grove Shopping Center, 297 W. Farm Road 3040, No. 160, Lewisville; (972) 315-1409. Open for lunch 11 a.m.-3 p.m. Monday-Saturday; dinner, 5 p.m.-9 p.m. Monday-Saturday. Closed Sunday.

Dish out compliments, complaints, and tips to markstz@juno.com

Tasty Greek:
Lentil soup $2.25
Chicken souvlaki $7.85
Khalil's special $11.95
Orange roughy $3.45
Moussaka plate $7.25

La Deli:
Maza plate (for two) $8.25
Shawarma $8.95
Lamb shish kabob $10.95
Shish tawook $8.95
Shrimp $11.25
Lady fingers 90 cents

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