Even though Charlotte's economy seems to be loosening up, wallets have not. Dining for value has become the mantra in 2009. For some restaurateurs, the gastropub is the new light to be followed; others depend on the "stack 'em high, price 'em low" formula: lots of food for not that much money.
Greek native Chris Limberakis is a veteran of providing Charlotteans with the latter. He opened Hugo's Diner on South Boulevard in 1991. Two years ago, he sold the business. That buyer could not make his concept (United Nations Restaurant) work and the business became Limberakis' once again. Last December, Limberakis opened The Mad Greek Restaurant, noting he was "mad" with the previous owner and the name seemed appropriate.
After the sale of Hugo's, Limberakis returned to Greece to his family's home in the Ionian islands and enjoyed his native cuisine. When he knew he would re-open an eatery, he chose to feature more Greek dishes. Some of his house-made specialties include pastichio, moussaka, souvlaki and baklava. Most of these entrées are under $10 and are inclusive of his Greek salad, a mélange of feta, onions, tomatoes and lettuce.
The flaky spanakopita is a pleasing rustic version of this classic, alluring for its lack of extravagance even if it's heavy on the spinach, not feta. The gyro is a mix of seasoned ground lamb and beef that has become what Americans think of as "gyro." In Greece, gyros are skewers of lamb or pork or chicken, thinly sliced and stacked. The processed gyro meat variation evolved here in the States (thank our sanitation departments for that). Additionally, Grecian gyros have at least three sauce variations: the traditional tzatziki in Athens, a mustard-based sauce in Thessaloniki, and a Russian dressing variation on Crete. Nevertheless, the hearty meat on the gyro at Mad is made without filler and the house-made tzatziki enhances the meat's (albeit ground) succulence.
Breakfast is offered until the early a.m. Prices are easy, portions are large. A Spanish omelet is $6.95, waffles are $4.50, gyros are $7.50, and a pastichio entrée with a salad and bread is $9.95. The Mad Greek has a minimalist diner décor, but the prices are minimalist as well. If you sit at the front counter, you can talk through the kitchen window to Limberakis -- if he's not too busy -- and discuss the nuances of Greek cuisine.
Albert Hui is a distributor for Century Food Company, an Asian import company. He realized that he and wife Winnie could fill a need by opening the 80-seat Lee Garden Chinese Cuisine in the Arboretum Shopping Center last May. Winnie Hui, a native of Hong Kong, said they designed their menu with low prices and large portions. Indeed, the 41 lunch and dinner combinations are less than $6.25 and are inclusive of rice and a choice of an egg roll, spring roll or crab Rangoon.
The menu features the usual suspects of popular Americanized Chinese dishes: Sa Cha, Hunan beef, lo mein, egg foo young, sweet and sour chicken, flower shrimp. Even though the menu denotes spiciness, these dishes are not two-alarmers.
Lee Garden's interior is devoid of Chinese knickknacks and fish tanks; in fact, one front wall flaunts a painting of Venice. Overhead lines of high-style halogen lights project spots of light onto the linenless tabletops. Tables are set with forks, not chopsticks (you will need to ask for them), and salt and pepper shakers. The soundtrack is vaguely Asian and the servers are fluent in English. Takeout is a large part of their business and many folks breeze in and out of the restaurant to pick up.
The best of the starters is the lovely burst of flavor from the steamed pork sausage dumplings. The egg rolls, however, taste pre-made while the barbecue spare ribs arrived overcooked and chewy. The sesame chicken entrée is heavily sauced with an over-the-top red saccharine blend.
A better entrée is the beef tangerine, although the beef is fried. This abundant dish, easily enough for two, is surrounded by steamed broccoli and laced with slivers of orange rind.
The flavor profile at Lee Garden is sweet and fried, but then these entrées are less expensive than fast food. The owners are meeting the low price expectations that many have of Chinese food.
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