Welcome to a weekly series at Gastronaut called Sorry I'm Late!. The premise: Our dining editor, Timothy Malcolm, is new to Houston. So much is happening here, so while he's reporting on and eating all the new stuff, he's also digging back into the past to get a better sense of how we got here. Each week he'll write about another restaurant, giving a brief review of his experience.
This week: Helen Greek Food & Wine
In May 2015, my wife and I honeymooned in Greece. We visited Athens, western Crete, Santorini, and Naxos and never ate better—potatoes brightened by just the right amount of lemon; lamb and pork stewed with cheese in intoxicating meaty, smoky broths; flounder chosen from the tank and presented whole; spanakopita and rosé on a Tuesday afternoon by the water; and baklava while watching the sunset on the southern (read: non-populated) end of Santorini.
Then we returned to America, and I had trouble enjoying my town's little and delicious Greek restaurant. They, like almost every Greek establishment in America, focused on street food specialties like gyro, souvlaki, moussaka, and pastitsio. Every platter came with a Greek salad, and after spending two weeks eating salads without lettuce and with barley rusks, I couldn't settle for these Americanized interpretations. (Some Greek restaurants serve horiatiki, which is the non-lettuce village salad, but man, you can't get those rusks anywhere.)
I'd find myself scouring Greek menus across the New York area for salads with rusks and whatever that pork stew was that knocked off my socks after the hailstorm in Naxos. I never had luck, and so I decided it was useless trying to recapture that honeymoon feeling here in America.
Then I visited Helen Greek in Rice Village.
The very first item on the menu is the Dakos salad, which is the common salad in eastern Crete but certainly has its variations in western Crete. Tomatoes, cucumbers, capers, oil, vinegar, feta, oregano ... and barley bread. That was the first item I tried at Helen Greek, and it was the first of a few items that took me back to those long days winding a small car up and down the Cretan hills, scaring my new wife silly before lounging by the Libyan Sea.
From there I had a trio of dips, including a tipiti—rich with creamy feta and packed with flavorful heat and pops of garlic—and a chickpea dip that wasn't just hummus, but was heartier and highlighted the nutty qualities of the pea. Then came a beautiful, mouthwatering cheese pie and, to finish, savory Cretan wedding rice cooked in lamb broth. It was hard not to lap up the dish. Lemon potatoes were savory and bright, the Greek doughnuts were divine, and oh wait, there was frappé, too.
While in Athens I watched as folks scampered out of their offices and into cafés around 3 p.m. And more than half of them ordered frappé, a water-and-cold coffee mixture blended with ice. I craved it, and seemed to order one every day around the same time. One day while driving about I needed a fix, so I ducked into a convenience store and bought the Nescafé mix, making the thing in the car. Instant memory. When I returned to America I bought a giant canister of Nescafé frappé mix and barely used it. Of course.
But Helen had frappé, and it was one part bitter, one part watery, all parts bold and necessary. I loved it.
That meal at Helen has been one of my most favorite in Houston. Part of that is nostalgia, the confirmation of beautiful memories made during one of the happiest times in my life. But part of that is also pretty simple: It has wonderful food.