At Greektown Music a bit farther up the street, owner Yiannis Morikis, a tattooed young man, puts in seven days a week selling CDs of Greek music. “It’s what I love,” he says. “I’m surrounded by music.” The only better job, he says, is when he gigs as a DJ at Greek weddings.
And at the south end of the strip, the Manolakos family — Helen and her children James and Athena — run the wonderful Pan Hellenic Pastry Shop. The traditional pastries, made from recipes dating to the Ottoman Empire and now secreted away in a safe-deposit box, can’t be beat in Chicago.
“Best baklava in the country,” James says, correcting me. “Nobody can touch it.”
“I haven’t had a day off in three years,” he says.
Chicagoans like to joke about flaming saganaki. After almost a half century, it’s a cheesy ritual in more ways than one. But it also remains a genius form of branding, as effective in shaping an image as the Nike swoosh. Every time a Greektown waiter sets a slice of fried cheese afire and cries “Opa!” — and that happens all night long — every customer within earshot gets that feeling of being at a party.
Flaming saganaki is the Parthenon’s most popular dish. Liakouras opened the restaurant on July 5, 1968, introduced flaming saganaki a few days later, and had customers lined up outside the door by Sept. 4. He had managed to sum up the good times in a flash of fire and a single word.
It is difficult to overstate the importance of flaming saganaki to the success of the Parthenon and, for that matter, to all of Greektown.
After visiting Nia’s grocery store and the Manolakos family’s pastry shop one afternoon, I walked over to Nine Muses and ordered its saganaki. I like to finish a job. The saganaki was good, but something was definitely missing.
Then I walked over to Artopolis.
“I have had the saganaki at every place on this street,” I announce to the manager, Spyros Pafitis.
“Except here,” he says.
“Except here,” I agree. “I must finish the job, do my duty.”
Pafitis seated me and a waiter brought me a saganaki — flameless.
“Enjoy!” she says.
Objectively speaking, I must report, this was terrific saganaki, served in crusty cubes like shish kabob, with lemon and mustard sauces.
“Well, what do you think?” Pafitis asks, returning to my table.
“Excellent,” I say, politely and sincerely. “Really good.”
But I couldn’t help but think it needed a certain something.
TOM McNAMEE is the editorial-page editor of the Chicago Sun-Times and the author of several books with Chicago themes, most notably the local best-seller Streetwise Chicago, a compendium of the stories behind all of the street names in the city.