My day job requires I attend a lot of food festivals - ranging from horrid to hilarious - and honestly, not many are worth your dining dollars. But the Greek festival at Tacoma's St. Nicholas Church? Absolutely worth the price of admission. OK, well, admission is free to the festival this weekend, but it's probably the best food festival you'll ever attend. Why? Because the food is made by an army of church volunteers who prepare the food like they would at home using copious amounts of garlic, lemon and oregano. I've just returned from the festival and all was operating as expected - plenty of crowds and swift service from the army of church volunteers.
This is the 51st year for the festival. Crews of 20 church volunteers worked around the clock all week to make much of the food from scratch - dolmathes (grape leaves stuffed with beef, rice and mint); spanakopita (spinach turnovers) that will be served only on Sunday and desserts like galaktoboureko, a baked custard; kourambiethes cookies; and baklava, a pastry saturated with a sweet syrup and layered with nuts.
The festival gets crowded, but volunteers move lines quickly in the dining tent where diners can swap cash, check or credit for tokens that can be exchanged for gyros, souvlaki, calamari, salad, Greek fries and loukoumathes, those deep-fried puffs dusted with cinnamon and drizzled with a honey syrup. In the dining hall next to the tent, a sit-down meal is served. Today's menu is fish and chicken and the same will be served tomorrow. Sunday's dinner is lamb. See the box below for all the ways to graze your way through the festival.
Price update: Prices did go up one dollar for a few items. Tyropitakia (cheese turnovers) and dolmathes (stuffed grape leaves) are $3 each, the Greek salad is $3.
FOUR WAYS TO DINE: Dining tent: Food booths offer tastes of Greek favorites, including gyros, calamari, souvlaki, fries, salad, pastries, coffee and beverages. Exchange cash for tokens to buy at the booths. Tokens are $1 each with a la carte items priced $1-$6. Leftover tokens can be returned for cash. Prices remain stable this year, though some pastries will be sold as singles, not doubles. Also in the tent is a deli selling take-home foods and Greek grocery items.Sit-down dinner: A multi-course meal for $12-$14. A fish dinner will be served Friday and Saturday, a lamb dinner on Sunday, and chicken will be served all three days. Seatings are continuous. Dinners include salata (Greek salad), fasolia yahni (braised string beans), rice pilaf, bread and coffee or tea.Kitchen window: Dolmathes and tyropitakia will be served at a window in the kitchen every day, with spanakopita served Sunday. Kitchen window items can be purchased a la carte with tokens. They are among the best deals at the event, priced at a few tokens each.Upstairs: Trays of baklava and pastry combo packs can be taken home. Baklava are packed in boxes of 22. Combo packs come with three kinds of pastries.
MY TOP PICKS IN THE TENT: (Find photos of every item sampled in the photo gallery below)Souvlaki ($4): Grilled pork on a skewer with a slightly puckery olive oil marinade and crusted with a heavy thump of oregano.Gyros ($5): A warm, doughy pita stuffed with ground, pressed gyros meat, onion and a heavy coating of garlicky tzatziki yogurt sauce.Calamari ($6): Tender fried calamari rings breaded and fried and served with a side of creamy skordalia dip, a potato dip flavored with garlic.Greek fries ($3):Fries covered in Greek seasoning with a coating of feta.Tyropitakia ($3): Two flaky triangles of phyllo dough stuffed with salty, melted feta. (served in the kitchen, just off the tent)Dolmathes ($3): Ribbons of lemon sauce over two stuffed grape leaves, each filled with a missile of seasoned ground beef and rice. (served in the kitchen dining window)Loukoumathes ($4): Fried puffs of dough dusted with cinnamon and coated with a honey syrup. If you get one dessert, make it this. Most of the desserts are served at the bakery case, but the loukoumathes are made to order at a booth right next to the beverage booth.
FROM THE BAKERY CASE: This year, I did what I've always wanted to do - I ordered one of everything. Here's my glossary, with photos for each dessert in the photo gallery at the bottom of this blog post.Baklava ($3): Layers of phyllo dough soaked in a sweet syrup with a middle layer of chopped walnuts and cinnamon, cut into triangles.Katifi rolls ($3): Rolled up baklava - shredded phyllo dough stuffed with a sweetened nut filling. It has the texture of shredded wheat.Galaktoboureko ($3): A baked farina custard with a base of shredded phyllo dough, dusted with cinnamon.Kataifi Ekmek ($3): Banana pudding base with a shredded phyllo crust, covered with whipped topping and pistachios.Koulourakia ($1): This is a very crisp cookie - twisted in a slight braid - with a biscotti like crunch and taste.Kourambiethes ($1): These are a shortbread style cookie coated in powdered sugar - a Greek version of Russian tea cookies or Mexican wedding cookies. They're buttery and soft, and melt-in-your-mouth delicious. If you get one thing, make it this.Melomakarona (called Melos on the sign, $1): This is a honey-soaked cookie covered in walnuts with lots of cinnamon and anise for flavoring.Ouzo cake ($2): A lemon cake with a light soak in ouzo, an anise flavored liqueur.Paximathia ($1): Think of this as Greek biscotti, only it had more of a texture of a cookie (as if it had not received a second baking like Italian biscotti). Coated with sesame seeds and with a light thump of anise.
51st annual Greek FestivalWhere: St. Nicholas Greek Orthodox Church, 1523 S Yakima Ave., TacomaWhen: Oct. 5-7, 2012. 11 a.m.-10 p.m. Friday and Saturday and 11 a.m.-7 p.m. SundayTickets: Free admission. Food prices range from $1 for a la carte items to $12-$14 for complete dinners.Contact: 253-272-0466, stnicholastacoma.orgPayment: Cash, cards or checks. Exchange leftover tokens for cash if you don't use them all. Tokens from last year can be reused this year.Tours: Tours of the church will be given by church leader Rev. Seraphim Majmudar. In 2010, the church completed its iconography project where elaborate murals were painted on the church's dome.Dancing: Expect to be entertained, too – and not just because the feast is a fun event for people watching. There’s a stage in the middle of the dining hall for the church’s youth dancers, who perform every few hours all weekend. The dance schedule is posted at the token booth.
Photo gallery of the 51st annual Greek Festival
Our pledge to readers: Sue Kidd dines anonymously and all meals are paid for by The News Tribune (even the lousy ones). Reach her at 253-597-8270 or email@example.com