Margaret Brinker-Brown gets a coffee warm-up from server Michael Dalis at Uncle Stavros. Photo by Kevin Cody
Just over a hundred years ago there was a great controversy about what were called hyphenated Americans – people who held American citizenship but cherished their Irish, German, or other heritage. This has never been a problem when it comes to restaurants – we have always accepted places that served German and American, Italian and American, and other combinations of the exotic and familiar. It’s our national culture, on a plate or in a sandwich.
It is odd, though, when a place that has an ethnic identity is far more accomplished at a different cuisine than the one they celebrate. So it has been with the reincarnation of Uncle Stavros, which bears the same name and is owned by the same family as the restaurant that existed in Hermosa for decades. The original closed five years ago; the new version opened early this year, serving something approximating the former establishment’s mix of Greek food, breakfasts, and American favorites like burgers and sandwiches.
I have visited four times this year, trying to figure out several mysteries about the place. My first visit was at breakfast, which seems to be the best meal here by a wide margin. The French toast made with homemade bread was exceptional, and an omelet with artichoke, feta, tomatoes, and garlic was large, tasty, and served with crisp home fries on the side. It was on the expensive side – a vegetarian omelet that would have run eight dollars across the street at Tammie’s was eleven here, and three dollars for a cup of regular coffee seemed excessive. I figured that things would be adjusted as they figured out their clientele and decided to give the place another chance.
I visited a month later for dinner, and decided to order all Greek specialties to give the place a chance to shine at what they presumably do best. I started with avgolemono soup, based on chicken broth with egg and lemon. This is traditionally a simple thing with just a modest dash of herbs to liven it up, but the one served here was bland even by that standard; it was wholesome but improved by a dash of salt and pepper.
I continued with the Greek Combo dinner – pastitsio, the lasagna-like Greek macaroni dish, moussaka, layered ground beef and eggplant, along with stuffed grape leaves and rice. At $25 for portions of three simple rustic dishes, the price seemed way out of line, but I wanted the variety to learn as much as possible about the cooking here. The portion was immense, particularly given that the pastitsio and moussaka are very filling dishes – I would have much preferred a smaller amount for a lower price. As soon as I saw the plate I figured that half of it was going home, because I couldn’t possibly finish it.
I was wrong about that, because I didn’t take it home – I left most of it on the plate. Moussaka and pastitsio should have full flavors, rich in oregano, tomato, garlic, and pepper, but these were almost as bland as the soup, and heavy, heavy, heavy. I ate the rice-stuffed grape leaves, which were covered in a sauce that resembled the soup, and hardly touched the big portion of rice pilaf on the side – putting more rice alongside starchy dishes like this was silly, and some salad would have been welcome. To accompany my meal I had a glass of Boutari Naoussa, a decent Greek wine that is sold at a rather high price here – $12 a glass or forty-five for a bottle.
I had really wanted to like Uncle Stavros because I enjoy Greek food, so I returned for a gyro at lunchtime. This had more flavor thanks to good homemade pita bread and lots of tangy tzatziki sauce, though there were also lots of pieces of tomato that were hard and under-ripe. These didn’t add much flavor so I removed them, which made it much easier to eat – the pita had been overstuffed and the sauce used very liberally. I’d order the sauce on the side if I came back, since while it was good I’d like to control the portion.
On one last visit I decided to try something different – an old-fashioned American patty melt. This was very successful, a good sized burger on grilled homemade bread with cheese, though at $11.25 for just the sandwich it was somewhat overpriced – with a side of fries and iced tea it was a good lunch, but not worth almost twenty dollars.
I find Uncle Stavros puzzling, a restaurant that gets breakfast and simple sandwiches right but fails at the items that should be their specialty, and has prices that are far out of line. The food here is comparably priced with Manhattan Beach’s high-style Petros and far inferior in execution and setting; the owners should rethink what they are doing and how much they charge for it or they won’t be in business long.
Uncle Stavros is at 201 Hermosa Avenue in Hermosa – Open Mo and We 6:30 a.m. – 3 p.m., Thu-Sa 6:30 a.m. – 9:30 p.m., Su 6:30 a.m. – 4 p.m. Small parking lot or street parking, beer and wine served, outdoor patio. Phone 310-379-2001.