In cold-cut case, Greek delicatessen keeps faith in fresh
I've always loved delicatessens. My earliest restaurant memory is of going with my dad to pick up pizza at Pierre's Delicatessen on Southeast 39th Avenue and Powell Boulevard. I wanted to go because it smelled deliciously of olives and garlic and pizza and the Italian owners (Pierre and his wife, Rosa) were friendly. I liked to study Pierre who, I'd been told, had eaten a cat in Italy during World War I.
After Pierre's closed, a pall of disappointment hung over my family's pizza endeavors for several years. But we still went to delicatessens. A trip to the deli meant that my mom, an exceptional and elaborate cook, was taking a break from the kitchen and we would eat roast beef or pastrami sandwiches and coleslaw for dinner.
There were more delicatessens in Portland in those days.
Today we still go to Otto's Sausage Kitchen and Meat Market (4138 S.E. Woodstock Blvd., 503-771-6714) for excellent cold cuts. But for an eat-in delicatessen experience, I choose Foti's Greek Deli Inc. (1740 E. Burnside St., 503-232-0274). It meets, for me, an important delicatessen criterion: humbleness.
The best delicatessens are the opposite of upscale; they're spots where people can get good food without the snootiness that pervades so many higher end restaurants. I really like Elephants, but I don't think of it as a deli, to me it has fancified itself out the delicatessen category.
Foti's is very modest looking. Divided in two, the space holds 12 or so tables where people can sit and eat in one half; the other half of the room is a little grocery carrying imported Greek treats and refrigerator cases holding mostly imported beer.
A counter and a glass deli case, from which one can order food to go or eat in, runs the width of the room. Behind the counter is a little kitchen dominated by a large grill. A couple of old video games (including Ms. Pac-Man) sit inside the entrance.
Foti's serves a good variety of cold and hot sandwiches (including tuna salad sandwiches and hamburgers with fries), but the Greek specialties are the finest. Foti's gyro sandwich is fantastic - a thick, chewy pita first fried on the grill then stuffed with a lamb-beef combination of gyros meat, tzatziki sauce, onions, tomatoes and lettuce. Pay an additional 40 cents to have feta added to the sandwich. Wear clothes you don't mind getting dirty, since the gyros are a delicious, sloppy mess.
Foti's deep-fried calamari is the best in Portland. Simply seasoned with just the right amount of salt and pepper, it's light and almost delicate, slightly crispy on the outside and tender - not rubbery - on the inside. And, because they buy whole squid and clean and cut it themselves, you get just the right proportion of rings to tentacles in the dish.
Foti and Jill Kosmas have owned and operated Foti's for 25 years. Foti Kosmas was born on Aegina Island in Greece, and his wife is from the U.S. They have many regular customers and they love the neighborhood.
Jill Kosmas says: 'It's a great neighborhood with Buckman School nearby and with good businesses all around us, the old ones and the newbies. The owners are nice people.'
The Kosmases' shop also definitely falls into the nice category. Even though the deli isn't fancy, the service is friendly and quick, and the food is delicious. The only weak spot on the Greek menu is the Greek salad, which could use more feta and tomatoes. I'll be back regularly for my favorite gyros and calamari and for the authentic delicatessen atmosphere.
Foti's is open 10 a.m. to 7 p.m. Monday through Saturday.
When David Machado opened Vindalho (2038 S.E. Clinton St., 503-467-4550) last fall, reservations were not accepted except for very large parties.
Lauro Kitchen (3377 S.E. Division St., 503-239-7000), Machado's very popular Division Street restaurant has never accepted reservations either. His 'no reservations' policy has irked some Portland foodies who resent waiting for a table. Well, it's time for them to chill out (at least partially) because Vindalho (but not Lauro) is now accepting reservations for any size party.
Last week I perched on a stool at the Vindalho bar with a plate of delicious green bean bahji in front of me to ask Machado about the reservation policy change. 'The majority of Vindalho's diners are women. At first we were surprised by it. But it's true,' he said. 'I think it's because women are more culturally curious. And women are planners - they like to make reservations.'
Additionally, Machado says, 'if you don't want to candy-coat it, it's the economics of the marketplace. Every time I would say 'no' to a reservation request for Vindalho, I had no idea whether or not those people would just go away and not come back.'
The same could be said of Lauro but while it is perpetually busy, Vindalho's business is a little more sporadic. Machado hopes taking reservations at Vindalho will attract customers who want to be guaranteed a table at a specific time. And he's confident that once they taste the food, they'll be back.
Vindalho is open from 5 p.m. to 10 p.m. Tuesday to Saturday. For reservations, call 503-467-4550.