Greek myths

Cook Ryan Brunton prepares a lamb and beef gyro.

Cook Ryan Brunton prepares a lamb and beef gyro.

Photo/Allison Young

Niko’s Greek Kitchen is open 11 a.m. to 8 p.m.

For many, a mention of Greek food usually starts and ends with “gyro sandwich.” And why not? Finding a really good gyro is a beautiful thing. But when I find a Greek cafe with traditional dinner options, I’m going to order half the menu. Recently opened in northwest Sparks, Niko’s Greek Kitchen is just such a place.

My mother and my wife started with cups of soup ($4 each). The fakes—brown lentil with onion and tomato—was simple and filling, though a bit bland. The lentil flavor was front and center, but it could have used a bit more seasoning. Better was the avgolemono—rice and chicken broth thickened with egg and butter until creamy, spiked with lemon juice for a tart finish. My wife really enjoyed it, and a cup of that rich brew is plenty.

A shared Greek salad (small, $5) was an ample serving of chopped cucumber, tomato, onion, crumbled feta cheese and Kalamata olives, lightly dressed in a traditional vinaigrette. I’ve always appreciated the simplicity of Greek salad dressing. There’s so much flavor in the salad ingredients, anything more would be overkill. And as with that rich soup, I was very glad I got the not-so-small salad.

We next shared a pair of savory pies ($6 each), tyropita (feta cheese) and spanakopita (spinach), made with layers of thin, buttered phyllo (filo) dough and filling. The feta and egg mixture packs quite a punch, definitely something only a true cheese lover can appreciate. The spinach pie was very fresh tasting and went well with a dollop of delicious tzatziki sauce.

Tzatziki—a mix of Greek yogurt, cucumber, dill, mint, and other seasonings—is one of my favorite condiments. I use it with Greek food the way many Americans use ranch dressing. I put it on almost everything. On request, a side of sauce was provided without charge when I ordered three falafel balls ($.75 each). Normally served in a salad or sandwich, I like to dunk them as finger food. The chickpea flavor and seasoning was good, but they were a little on the overcooked side. Then again, that extra bit of crunch worked with the sauce.

Souvlaki literally means “skewer,” and our plate of chicken souvlaki featured very large chunks of chicken breast coated in a variety of Greek seasonings, with tarragon and thyme making a strong appearance ($14). The chicken was quite good and not as dry as it can get if not properly marinated. A sampling of perfectly grilled carrots, green beans, and zucchini spears was included, along with a tasty serving of pilafi (rice pilaf) that tasted much like the egg lemon soup but with a risotto-esque texture.

Once I saw it on the menu, I knew I had to try the moussaka ($16). Layers of eggplant, ground meat, onion, and other goodies are topped with a thick layer of Béchamel sauce that becomes a light, savory custard after baking. The thing is, the seasoning includes cinnamon and allspice along with black pepper, garlic, etc., which is why my nose kept saying “pumpkin pie” while my tongue said “shepherd’s pie.” It tastes a lot better than that sounds, with an aroma and texture that’s unique.

My wife’s beef and lamb gyro included plenty of tender, well-seasoned meat, fresh veggies, and tzatziki all rolled into a lightly-grilled pita ($7.75). A sandwich this good is why I often skip the rest of a menu; we agreed Niko’s makes one of the best gyros you’ll find anywhere.

Unfortunately, I can’t say the same for the baklava ($4, three pieces). Served warm and gooey, the nut and honey pastry had OK flavor but was very difficult to bite through. Kind of a disappointing end to an otherwise fun meal.

Still, with plenty of leftovers for lunch and a shared meal experience we won’t soon forget, Niko’s has got the goods.