Simple and Skillful

Fronimo's Greek Café serves up flavorful Greek cuisine without a bit of pretentiousness

My late colleague Chris Limberis, as a politics and government reporter, loved to cover factionalism in its many forms, expose people who weren't entirely on the up-and-up, and put in a good word for those who made an honest effort.

He was also what another former Greek-American colleague of mine would have called a "professional Greek"--knowledgeable about the Old Country and a bit of the mother tongue, and immersed in the local Greek community, aware of who was doing what to/with/for whom. That tied in neatly with his interest in factions. He had opinions about which Greek restaurateurs were decent, good folks, and would patronize their establishments; he had opinions about those who were more difficult personalities, and would shun their dining rooms.

Chris apparently approved of George Fronimakis, for we would occasionally enjoy lunch at Fronimakis' modest restaurant, Fronimo's. It's on Speedway Boulevard, across from the Loft, in the surviving half of a strip mall that has been partially razed to make way for a big chain drugstore. Fronimo's is a counter-service operation, but it would never be confused with a chain or franchise shop. Yes, the food is quickly dished up onto disposable plates and delivered on trays, but it has obviously been prepared with an emphasis on flavor rather than efficiency. Not only that, but the folks behind the counter--including members of the Fronimakis family--seem pleasant, bright and helpful; they're not merely logging hours.

There's nothing drab or generic about the décor, either, which is modest but surprisingly nice for such a casual spot. There's real ceramic tile on the floor, not linoleum; the walls are an attractive mustard color, with a semi-abstract painted frieze running along them just above the clean booths, and above that are framed photos and artwork mainly from Crete, the Fronimakises' island of origin. The service counter is well-separated from the dining area, which keeps noise and traffic away from the tables, and an enclosed room in the front, overlooking Speedway traffic, can be reserved for private functions. There's a comparatively nondescript but tidy patio out back, and even the restrooms are clean and attractive. These are pretty basic issues, but they're often overlooked at similarly casual, economical eateries.

So, how's the food? More than satisfying. A few years ago, when the restaurant occupied a smaller space a couple of doors west, it was called Fronimo's Gyros and Burgers; these days, it's Fronimo's Greek Café, but gyros, burgers and other sandwiches (tuna melts, boca burgers) still occupy about a third of the menu. Fronimo's reputedly has wonderful onion rings, but I eschewed them and the other American fare--which, after all, you can get just about anywhere. True, Fronimo's offers a Greek burger ($3.75) with feta cheese and the yogurt-cucumber sauce called tzatziki, but the only reason even to look at the "American favorites" menu at an ethnic restaurant is to be sure there's something for Uncle Marvin from Missouri, who refuses to eat anything he hadn't already tasted by the time he was 5 years old.

If you want a tasty and very inexpensive lunch, instead of getting a burger, why not order the spanakopita ($2.75), flaky sheets of filo pastry wrapped around a slightly spicy spinach and feta filling, with a bowl of avgolemono soup ($2.75)? The soup is rich with egg, rice and chicken broth; it could have used a touch more lemon on a recent visit, but it was still good.

For larger appetites, go for the "house specials." There's a well-regarded, well-seasoned Athenian half-chicken plate ($8.50), but my companion with a taste for flesh was more interested in the lamb shank ($9.50), a generous hunk of meat almost tender enough to drop from the bone without much encouragement; it was baked in a delicious tomato-rosemary sauce, and served with plump, moist, buttery rice, plus grilled pita and a dinner salad. For an extra 75 cents, you can upgrade to Greek salad. In both cases, the ingredients are conventional but fresh and crisp; if you were to put the oily Greek dressing on the regular side salad, the only thing differentiating it from a Greek salad would be the absence of feta, extra onion and a couple of olives.

The moussaka ($9.50) and pastitsio ($8.50) are essentially the same thing, except that moussaka involves layers of potato and eggplant, for which the pastitsio substitutes penne pasta. Both are baked with a rich, slightly sweet meat sauce and creamy béchamel. The moussaka comes with more goodies on the side--rice, salad and pita--whereas the pastitsio is accompanied only by salad. The grilled pita is something you shouldn't miss; it's so light and puffy, I started thinking of it as "sopaipita."

There's not much alcohol on the premises, just beer and a small selection of Greek wines; a glass of slightly sweet Boutari Moschofilero ($6) would complement almost anything on the menu.

Dessert choices ($1.85) are limited to Greek rice pudding (a vanilla pudding with tender and sweet grains of rice, sprinkled with cinnamon) or the nearly interchangeable baklava and kataife (the latter is essentially baklava that looks like shredded wheat). Refreshingly, Fronimo's baklava is not overwhelmed by honey; there's enough to make it sweet and moist, but you can readily taste the nuts and seasoning, too.

It's easy to understand why Chris Limberis liked Fronimo's. Nobody here seems to be getting "too big for his britches" (as Chris would say of overly ambitious and pretentious politicians), and everything is done with simple integrity and skill.