Having lived in or around Manhattan for most of my life, it has been easy for me to “be Greek” whenever I felt like it. I lived walking distance from a Greek Orthodox Church almost my entire life, with easy access to Greek restaurants and food stores, and an array of Greek dances and other social gatherings readily at my disposal.
But here in Central Pennsylvania, where I’ve lived for the last four years, it’s not so easy being Greek. The nearest church is at least a half hour’s drive, and that’s considerably closer than any of the other Greek amenities.
So when TNH Senior Writer Dean Sirigos reminded me that he and two of our other colleagues, Demetris Tsakas and Kosta Bej, were heading to Loretto in Western PA to interview ex-CIA officer John Kiriakou, who has been in prison for a year for what he considers retaliation for, among other things, having been the first government official to comment publicly about waterboarding (TNH Lead Story, Feb. 15), I figured that I would join them for dinner at roughly the midway point of their long return home.
I’ve been to a few Greek restaurants in Philadelphia, and a couple of others scattered throughout the state, but the key was to find one close to the highway, so they wouldn’t have to venture too far out of their way.
A well-placed Google search led me to the Hellenic Kouzina in Mechanicsburg (near the state capital, Harrisburg). Close to the highway for them, less than an hour away for me (I know you urban readers might be thinking “an hour is a long time,” but we rarely have traffic out here – and the hourlong drives after a while begin to feel as if they’re only 15 minutes).
I timed it so we would all arrive at the same time, but the PA Turnpike had been particularly kind to them, and they made it to the restaurant considerably earlier than expected. By the time I pulled up, they were already there, having opened the bottles of red and white wine they brought along – I told them it was a BYOB – and knew, coming from Astoria, they had a better selection of Greek wine at their disposal.
The first sound I heard as I entered Hellenic Kouzina was “Mes tou Aigaiou ta Nisia – Among the Aegean Islands,” a song high on my list as far as conjuring fond memories of Greece.
I spotted my Kyrix compadres and down I sat – only to stand up about a minute later. You see, at Hellenic Kouzina, you have to order your food from the main counter, and then it is brought to you by the waitstaff.
I read rave reviews about Kouzina’s pièce de résistance entrée, the Oven-Baked Lamb Shank, but due to time constraints, it was a shorter meal consisting mostly of an array of mezedes to complement the wine. In additions to ample portions of taramosalata and tzatziki, replete with plenty of pita bread for dipping, we also sampled the saganaki and gigantes plaki, among other quick bites.
At the core of the food preparation, in an open-kitchen visible to all was owner Lambros Alexopoulos, who was more than happy to talk with us while never fully staying still.
Later on, I contacted him so he could tell me more about himself, his family, and the Hellenic Kouzina.
Born in the United States, Alexopoulos’ father is from Agrinion and his mother’s family from a small mountain village called Domnista, near Karpenisi. His Greek is extremely good – as if he were a native. His parents came to the United States after a short and “arranged” engagement that has “worked out for the best,” he said. “My father never had any intentions of leaving Greece for anything. In fact it never even occurred to him. It wasn’t until he met my mother and was engaged that leaving Greece was only days away. My mother and most of her family was already in America for a few years prior to their engagement/marriage.”
The Hellenic Kouzina, which he opened in 2012, is Alexopoulos’ second restaurant. The first was a breakfast-lunch place in Downtown York, PA – which he operated for 14 years. Before that, Alexopoulos virtually grew up in restaurants “as most first-generation Greek-American children did. For better or for worse, I just never made it out.”
York is where his mother’s family settled in the early-to-mid 1960s for a better life, and without money at their disposal, education was not an option: they had to work – and work hard they did – in York’s factories and restaurants.
“On a return trip to Greece in the fall of 1969 for the purpose of marrying off my mother, my grandparents made contact with my father’s parents and met in their village, discussed the details of the marriage of their daughter to their son and in a matter of days, they were engaged and then married right away (less than one week!). My father left Greece along with my mother and returned to York, where they began a life’s worth of work to make enough to raise us and provide a roof over our heads. My father was a building contractor by trade in Greece but because he couldn’t speak a word of English and could not communicate, his in-laws arranged for him to work as a dishwasher when he came here. A familiar story in many families.”
The notion of ordering food at the counter then having it brought to the table is a bit unusual for Greek restaurants, isn’t it, I wondered. “My wife and I like the efficiency and personal touch of the fast/casual food service concept, which is gaining momentum all over the country,” Alexopoulos replied. “I say personal because guests are able to interact with everyone involved in their dining experience. The open kitchen and service model allows for this and it has been a refreshing experience for many. Popular in large cities like NY and Boston, we’ve enjoyed many great meals and great personal interaction with those preparing them for us. Having a large family, we found that the simplicity of the menu and service style made our experience more enjoyable overall. We can make our visit as short or as long as we would like for it to be. We don’t have to wait for a server for anything. On the occasion I need something and my server is not to be found, I don’t need to deal with the smart comments from other servers who oftentimes remind you that they are not your server but will help you anyway. The result of service that is tip-driven rather than guest satisfaction-driven.
“The word in Greek is philoxenia,” he continued, “and I believe that we have introduced Central Pennsylvania to what philoxenia is. I like to dispense with the formalities and get to the reason why I go somewhere to eat and that is to be with my friends, family and by all means enjoying a good plate of food together with them. It is about my parea and our time together and not about our interaction with our server that matters. This service style isn’t for everyone, and that is not to say a server doesn’t have a place in restaurants anymore (I waited tables for 15 years) but if the same can be achieved without one and the tip can be spent on another food item or drink or something else later in the day, why not?”
And make us feel at home they did that afternoon.
How has the restaurant fared over its first two years, thus far? “We had many naysayers and pundits in the beginning, and some God-awful comments (some on the Internet) soon after we opened. For what it is worth, by the end of the first year we reached number 1 out of 160+ restaurants in Mechanicsburg as rated by TripAdvisor, a place we continue to hold as we come to the end of our second year in business. Urbanspoon has us at 97% favored by locals and we just reached number 1 on Yelp. We have put our hearts and souls into this little cafe and we love being philoxeni. To be Greek is to be philoxeni and by all accounts, the locals love Philoxenia.”
Indeed. On behalf of my TNH colleagues, thank you, Lambro, for a great meal, and for providing an outlet for Central Pennsylvanians to be Greek for an afternoon.