Reader Sammi wants to know if I’ve ever eaten “real” galaktoboureko before. Well I’ve never eaten it in Greece, though I’ve been to Athens. But I have eaten it in my home town of Chicago, in Greektown, a place that holds a special place in my heart to this day. Greektown is your classic big city, immigrant-created, Americanized ethnicity ghetto. It’s not much populated by Greeks, at least not anymore. The originals have long since moved to the suburbs. Today Greektown is mostly full of restaurants and shops, some of them glitzy and catering to tourists, others more subdued, catering to immigrants and/or their descendants who still want a genuine taste of the Old Country.
The Parthenon is probably the anchor restaurant on the strip that runs along Halsted Street just West of downtown. It’s been there since the late 60’s and is notable for having invented flaming saganaki — little pans of sautéed cheese that the wait staff flames at the table side. Though really the wait staff rarely waits until they get to the table to blaze up the kasseri. On any given Saturday the main dining rooms are filled with waiters dashing between tables shouting “Opa!” as fat plumes of flame trail behind them. Which makes The Parthenon the number one restaurant in Chicago for setting your hair on fire. Though I should say I’m not aware of anyone ever being harmed there, even the owner, Chris Liakouras, whose own hair was set on fire by saganaki in 1975. Really, it’s all part of the fun.
But an even bigger part of the fun, at least for high schoolers around Chicago in my day, was the drinking. Greektown was a great place to get a drink if you were underage, at least before the city started cracking down in the late 80’s. I remember several faux “bachelor parties” at various restaurants along Halsted, where an elected member of my class would assume the role of the “groom” and everyone else — including, frequently, the selected restaurant’s wait staff, hosts and cooks — would drink until they had to be carried out…usually somewhere around 3 A.M.
I never indulged much in the drinking, I lived in mortal fear of coming home with ouzo on my breath. Anyway I was too interested in the desserts. Which, to bring things full circle, is how I met my first galaktoboureko. It was a street-style pastry, more like a pouch than a piece of pie, but I remember marveling at the thing. I’d usually pocket a few for the ride home, during which my classmates would literally hang out the windows of my car as I sped down the Eisenhower. They made a handy before-bed snack after I’d finished dragging my unconscious passengers out onto their parents’ lawns and hosing the vomit off the fake wood decals on the car doors.
Good God, what an evening. Hope I didn’t wake mom and dad up.