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Tarpon Springs’ Greek tavernas thrive along the sponge docks June 8, 2007

Posted by grhomeboy in Greek Taste World.

Greek restaurants thrive in Tarpon Springs, originally a result of the wives of Greek sponge divers helping support their families by doing what they do best: Feeding everybody.

Tarpon Spring’s sponge docks have been there since 1890, when the sponge industry was established. Greeks were brought in to do the deep-sea diving needed for harvesting the sponges from the Gulf’s bottom and for 30 years, natural sponges were the number one industry in the state.

In the ’40s, however, a blight killed off the sponge beds, drying up the businesses along the docks. But by then, the Greek community in the area was well established. To earn money after the sponge beds died off, the Greeks opened other shops, or went into the seafood and restaurant business.

In the ’80s, new sponge beds were discovered and the sponge industry has revived. With it, the community has undergone something of a rebirth as well. The sponge dock area is thriving, and so are some pretty good traditional foods.

Seafoods are most popular. Expect grilled octopus, sautéed and fried calamari, and whole fish grilled or baked with tomatoes, onions, garlic and oregano. Lamb and chicken sauced with lemon-egg sauce or red tomato sauce are skewered for kebabs, grilled or baked. Of course, there are the gigantic salads, sprinkled with feta cheese and topped on this coast with a scoop of homemade potato salad.

Hellas Restaurant and Cafe, 785 Dodecanese Blvd., Tarpon Springs, (727) 943-2400, Hours: Open daily for lunch and dinner; late hours on Saturday.

You can’t go wrong with flaming cheese. Order the saganaki, and be sure to sit back when the waitress delivers the blazing cheese dish fueled by brandy to your table, opa! Tables on the covered porch along Dodecanese Boulevard make for excellent people watching, and the blue and white interior decor and murals of the Old Country lend a casual charm.

Order the sampler platter: lamb caserole; dolmades, or grape leaf wraps; and a Greek salad, served here with a scoop of potato salad. Don’t forget to try the baklava for dessert. Hellas is a popular place for lunch, so be prepared for harried servers and lots of commotion.

Plaka Restaurant, 769 Dodecanese Blvd., Tarpon Springs, (727) 934-4752,
Hours: Open daily for lunch and dinner; late hours on Saturday.

“Talk to your server before you order,” the host suggests. Especially if it’s your first time here, since portions are so big, most people can’t eat all they order. Even the “salad for 1” feeds two, he said.

Specialties include the gyro, for which the restaurant grinds its own meats, and souvlaki, also all made in house. “We don’t bring any Greek foods in from the outside,” the spokesman said. Other signature dishes here are the big lamb shanks, you get two per order, with a tomato-oregano and garlic sauce over rice. Seafood is all over the menu, with appetizers of shrimp or calamari, whole fish entrees, cod, grouper, octopus, chargrilled with lemon in a traditional preparation. Pork or chicken souvlaki go into one of the specials, a type of stir-fry served with peppers, onions and tomatoes over rice. Shrimp ala plaka is sautéed shrimp, served over a bed of rice, with onions and tomatoes in a wine sauce. For dessert, there’s only rice pudding and baklava.

Mama’s Original and Greek Cuisine, 735 Dodecanese Blvd., Tarpon Springs, (727) 944-2888, www.mamasgreekcuisine.net

Maria “Mama” Koursiotis is the matriarch behind these restaurants, and she’s still coming to the restaurants, and cooking up her specialties, all recipes brought from the old country when she brought her sons to join her husband working the sponge beds in the ’60s.

It was his untimely bout with “the bends” in 1978 that ended his career and started Maria’s as restaurateur. The real traditionals are here: saganaki (sharp Greek cheese flamed with brandy), pan fried marides, or smelts, tiny lake fish battered and eaten whole; charbroiled octopus, skordalia, the creamy potato dip and dolmades, stuffed grape leaves. Traditional red Greek caviar goes into the taramasolata, a creamy type of caviar spread. Sauteed or braised endive (horta) can be ordered as a side dish or appetizer, served Greek style with olive oil and a squeeze of lemon.

If you can’t decide among favorites like pastitso, mousaka, a gyro or dolmades, you can order a combo platter with some of each. Likewise, the fish selections can be ordered as a platter.

There are pastas, and keftedes, “Mama’s meatballs.” Marinated lamb, chicken or pork kebabs and a number of sandwiches are available for lighter fare along with the big Greek salads. A few vegetarian selections are available as well. The two desserts, baklava and rice pudding, are meal-enders along with Greek coffee. Wines and beers also are served.

A bouzouki player entertains on weekend nights. None of these meals will break the bank, either.

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