Don't Try This at Home

European Market and Deli's unusual fare holds up better on the premises than as take-out

In my experience as a near-native Tucsonan, restaurants that serve truly authentic European food aren't exactly easy to come by in this town. Of course, defining exactly what constitutes "European food" is about as easy as trying to explain what "American food" might be. After traveling to Europe for the first time this summer, I've learned that the so-called Continental cuisine that we have here in America is just a tiny fraction of the multitude of food cultures and influences that reside just a hop across the ocean.

However, for emigrants craving a little slice of home away from home, or anyone looking for some interesting and delicious groceries, European Market and Deli might just be the place. Inconspicuously located in the Midway Business Park on East Speedway Boulevard, the small corner market is easy to overlook. Open from 9 a.m. to 8 p.m. daily, the market has a smattering of hard-to-find cheeses, meats, smoked fish, pickled vegetables, chocolates, beers, wines and liquors from Russia, Poland, Greece, Turkey and Lithuania, among others.

On our first visit, Ted and I were greeted warmly when we entered, and we quickly perused the limited menu, which consists mostly of Greek dishes. I ordered the lunch special, cabbage rolls ($5.99), and Ted ordered the traditional gyro ($6.99). With the help of our friendly server, we picked out two beers that we hadn't tried before--a Russian porter for me, the Baltika #6, and a Polish porter for Ted, Zymec porter ($4 each for dine-in)--and took a seat in the small, quaintly decorated seating area, amusing ourselves by analyzing the Russian and Eastern European advertisements adorning the walls.

The food came out promptly and piping hot. The cabbage rolls were two baseball-sized spheres of pork and rice mixed with spices and wrapped in a thin, delicate cabbage leaf, covered with a modest amount of tomato sauce. They were obviously made in-house and were delicious, reminding me of the stuffed cabbage my Midwestern grandmother makes.

The gyro was generously stuffed, and although the meat was obviously not rotisserie cooked in-house, it was well spiced and good, though not spectacular, but the abundant amount of chunky, delicious tzatziki sauce almost made up for it. Almost.

Our server came and checked in with us several times, and I couldn't leave without trying a piece of baklava ($2). Now, here I must admit that I am a bit of a snob, and a little spoiled when it comes to Greek food, because I have access to some of Tucson's best authentic Greek food (OK, technically it's Cypriot food, but it's very similar) any time I want it at my in-laws' house. But back to the baklava. If it wasn't homemade, it tasted like it was. The two-inch high, flaky, sweet, crunchy, nutty, crispy piece was divine, rich and filling. The only thing I would have asked is that it be served at room temperature or warmer, rather than cold. After escaping for under $25 on our first visit, I was pleasantly surprised.

The second visit did not fare so well, however. This time we decided to order the food and some beverages to go. A chicken gyro, a Greek salad, some spanakopita and two new Lithuanian beers were our choices. Service was prompt and friendly, and the food came out quickly. Once home, we delved into the food enthusiastically--and quickly realized that the beer was going to be the flavor highlight of the meal.

The chicken gyro ($6.99) had three skimpy pieces of what I assume was very, very dry ground and spiced chicken, although it tasted and looked more like uncooked tortilla strips than any meat product I've ever had. The rest of the gyro fillings were plentiful, and the tzatziki was again fabulous and lavishly served. The two triangular pieces of spanakopita ($4.99) were undoubtedly reheated, which made the phyllo dough tough and chewy, although the overall flavor was still pretty good. The Greek salad ($4.99) was mediocre and uninspiring, although probably the best value, made with iceberg lettuce and what tasted uncannily like Italian salad dressing. The Lithuanian beers, a Utenos porter ($2.99) and a Lobster Lover's lager ($2.39), were definitely the most interesting and flavorful part of the meal.

The European Market and Deli has a lot to offer in the way of tasty, unusual and unique groceries. Lunch is quick and usually tasty, as long as you stick with the tried-and-true classics, like the traditional gyro or the cabbage rolls. They also offer a wide variety of sandwiches and have a deli with a great selection of cheeses and meats, from mortadella to veal bologna. The prices are reasonable, and service is quick and friendly, both in the deli and the market.

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