Feta, olives, pita, beets: Detroit loves a Greek salad

Melody Baetens
The Detroit News

Food-wise, Detroit may be known for coney dogs and Sicilian-style pizza, but when it comes to lunchtime, the Greek salad is king around here.

It’s one of those dishes you can get just about any diner, coney island or lunch-focused restaurant. It can be vegetarian and — if you can resist the pita bread — low-carb and gluten-free.

I’ll confess to eating at least two Greek salads a week and I can hear my co-workers ordering Greek salad carryout orders. In fact, a Greek salad is the first thing I can remember ordering in a restaurant (as I kid I needed it with extra olives, always).

George Antonopoulos at Athens Souvlaki in the Penobscot Building in downtown Detroit says the Greek salad is the highest-selling item in his restaurant and is often ordered with their marinated chicken.

“We go through a lot,” he said. “It is a popular dish, plus I really think our dressing is really good. Our chicken is marinated really good ... and the pita bread wraps everything together.”

Besides the expected beets, pepperoncini, tomato and feta cheese, the Greek salad at Athens in Detroit (they have a Southfield location, too) comes with chick peas, a high-protein legume that they started adding to their salads about five years ago. Antonopoulos also bucks American-style Greek salad tradition by not including onions and cucumbers because at least half the people who order ask to leave one or the other off.

I call this an American-style Greek salad because in Greece a salad doesn’t look much like what we see in the States. There, the salad wouldn’t have lettuce and you wouldn’t find pickled items such as beets and peppers.

“Here’s the thing,” said Grace Keros of American Coney Island. “There’s a real Greek salad and then there’s Greek salads that come over here to America and they took the Greek salad and American-ized it. Nowhere in Greece are you going to find a beet on a Greek salad.”

Keros said they added Greek salads to their coney-dominated menu about 15 years ago because so many people were asking for them. They offer the beets as an add-on.

“In Greece you have beautiful salad that’s a beet salad, but you don’t put beets on a Greek salad,” she said, adding that she thinks a side of french fries is a perfect accompaniment for their Greek salads to make it more of a meal.

“In Greece, (a salad is) whatever fresh produce is available at the time,” said Greektown’s Golden Fleece co-owner Yanni Dionisopoulos. “Fresh tomatoes, cucumber, green pepper, red onion, a block of feta cheese, Kalamata olives, olive oil and oregano on top.”

Athens Souvlaki and Golden Fleece have a more authentic salad on their menu called a Village Salad, which is similar to what you’d get in Greece.

Dionisopoulos says that after gyros, the Greek salad is their most popular dish. Theirs comes with a pinkish dressing that’s a family secret and they also add green peppers.

“The Greek salad is the most popular one because it’s very simple to make,” he said. “It’s very healthy and nutritious and with the right feta and the right vegetables it’s a delight.”

At Golden Fleece, I recommend getting the Greek salad with gyro meat. Here it’s made in-house and it’s 100 percent lamb, no beef or other filler.

Yanni Dionisopoulos and his cousin, Speros Dionisopoulos, are second-generation restaurant owners. Their fathers are brothers who opened the restaurant — the oldest Greek-owned restaurant in Greektown — in 1971, just a few years after immigrating from Greece.

“We’re celebrating 47 years next month,” said Yanni. “Looking at Greektown today, where there’s a handful of Greek restaurants left, we’re very proud to be here and we’re looking forward to another 47 or more years. We haven’t changed much, and as you can see around here and we’re not planning on changing anything any time soon.”

The Golden Fleece family will see a lot of familiar faces this weekend when the Greek Independence Day Parade rolls. The 17th annual event is 3 p.m. Sunday beginning at Campus Martius and marching down Monroe through historic Greektown. Yanni is the president of the parade committee.

“It’s a perfect example to taste all the plates that we serve,” he said of the annual spring event. “From food, music, drinking, dancing the culture and all the heritage that we have.”

Twitter: @melodybaetens