I sometimes wonder if the owners of A Taste of Athens in Pasadena look out the window of their small restaurant and think of how things might have been if they had chosen another location. They can't help but notice the steady stream of diners heading for the Brown Derby across the street or the ultratrendy Crocodile Cafe and line-out-the-door Soup Plantation about a block away--not to mention the Hamburger Hamlet, Tony Roma's or the Scandinavian restaurant or the health food counter or the Italian restaurant or the. . . .
Well, you get the idea. There are numerous eateries near the corner of Lake Street and Colorado Boulevard in Pasadena, as befits the main intersection in this resurgent city of roses. And while A Taste of Athens may be suffering a bit from the competition, it is also slowly but steadily building a devoted clientele.
Some of the best reasons to try A Taste of Athens are found on the daily special list. Thursday's treat is pastitsio , a baked dish made up of layers of ground beef, tomatoes and macaroni covered with a hearty bechamel sauce strongly flavored with herbs--a very satisfying meal.
As might be expected at any restaurant named after Greece's capital, the moussaka (Friday's special) and dolmades (Wednesday's) are a delight. The same bechamel sauce on the pastitsio is used to add punch in the moussaka. This is a heavy dish for big eaters: traditional layers of sliced potatoes, zucchini, eggplant and ground beef baked to perfection. Less heavy are the dolmades --grape leaves stuffed with ground beef, herbs and rice--topped with a light egg-and-lemon sauce that perfectly complements the mildly spicy meat filling.
Perhaps the best special of all is served everyday: The combination plate--moussaka, pastitsio , dolmades and the mixture of lamb and beef used in the Athenian gyros sandwich--is a reasonably priced way to sample the three best daily specials. The combination plate and the specials come with a choice of soup or salad and kouloura bread.
Another good choice is to make a meal of the extensive appetizer selections. Divided into hot and cold sections, the appetizer combination plates are again the best way to sample a little of each item. The cold combo plate includes three dips and baked eggplant served with sliced carrots, cucumbers and celery. Each dip is a garlic lover's dream: Skordalia and tzatziki (yogurt and cucumber) offer subtle blending of spices and herbs to go with a healthy dose of garlic; taramosalata is a slightly salty red caviar dip. Melitzanosalata , the baked eggplant, surprisingly tastes better cold; it's seasoned with olive oil, vinegar and . . . garlic.
The hot appetizer menu is more extensive, ranging from kalamarakia --breaded baby squid fried to a crisp--to spanakopites , the traditional baked filo triangles filled with chopped spinach and cheeses. Cheese and meat lovers get the best of the hot menu: Cheese fans can choose from spanakopites, saghanaki (fried kefalotiri cheese served flambe), or tiropittes (more baked filo triangles, this time without the spinach).
Meat lovers can choose from keftedakia (fiery Greek-style meatballs--greasy at one tasting, fried perfectly at another), loukaniko (sausage) or clykadakia (fried sweetbreads) or opt for the combination plate of those three dishes plus liver.
The dinner menu considerably expands the choices: There is an extensive list of fish dishes (red snapper, for one, was correctly cooked--light, flaky pieces), as well as continental dishes (the lamb shank with red potatoes would be right at home in a San Francisco bistro).
There's a different soup each day . . . and it's always avgolemono, the classic Greek soup. A Taste of Athens' version is very heavy with the traditional lemon flavoring, but the other standard ingredients--egg, rice and chicken--are hard to find. Given the choice, it's best to skip the soup and take the salad course, a small, pleasant lettuce salad with a tasty yogurt dressing garnished with carrots and olives.
Save some room for the dessert tray. Skip the baklava--it's good but you can get this anywhere--and go straight for the karidopitta , a mix of chopped nuts, cinnamon and spices in sweet bread dough dripping with honey. Chocolate lovers should opt for the chocolate roll: crushed butter cookies topped with chocolate sauce, chocolate sprinkles and powdered sugar--a gooey treat that's rich enough to send all your nerve endings into sugar arrest.
The wine list is short but contains a nice mix of Greek wines as well as a California house wine. Spartan lager, a Greek brew, is available, as is a selection of domestic beers.
Crocodile Cafe with its hour wait? Soup Plantation with the line out the door? Both are OK, but there are days when a pleasant meal at a Greek island of calm might be just the ticket.
A Taste of Athens, 924 E. Colorado Blvd., Pasadena, (818) 793-6664). Open for lunch and dinner: Tuesday through Thursday, from 11 a.m. to 9 p.m., Friday and Saturday to 10 p.m.; Monday from 11 a.m. to 3 p.m.. Lunch for two, $10 to $15; dinner, $10 to $30.