Athena Grill, Santa Clara
It would be understandable if you thought you’d gotten lost while trying to get to Athena Grill in Santa Clara. Surrounded by low-slung industrial buildings, it doesn’t look at all like a neighborhood where you’d find a restaurant of any sort.
But this casual, family-owned Greek restaurant has been drawing a loyal following to this spot for the past 19 years.
It’s the type of simple, oregano-fragrant food in ample portions that you picture yourself enjoying at an outdoor cafe overlooking the Aegean Sea. When you get the food to-go, just be prepared to work up an appetite, inhaling the heady garlic the whole way home.
It’s one of the few places you’ll find smelt ($11.95). These tiny fish, lightly breaded and fried, are about the size of the french fries they come with. In fact, you may have trouble distinguishing the two at first glance. Squeeze on some lemon juice and dunk into the container of skordalia, a creamy potato garlic dip. They’re mild tasting, and edible in their entirety.
If larger fishes are more your speed, go for the grilled sardines mezes ($12.95). They are marinated in olive oil, garlic and lemon before getting crisped on the grill. You have to debone them yourself. But that’s easy enough to do. They are tender, slightly stronger in taste with their rich oil, and just a joy to dig into.
The octopus mezzes ($16.95) brings tender rings enlivened with a smoky taste from the grill splayed over a bed of arugula. Spoon on the accompanying lemon dressing to add a bright zing.
Monterey squid gets fried and tossed with a jumble of garlic fries ($12.95) for finger-food that you can’t stop eating.
Falafel can be enjoyed several ways here, including as a mezzes ($8.95). You get five falafels with small containers of hummus and tahini, along with fried pita wedges. The falafel are super crunchy with the nutty taste of cracked bulgur.
Romaine, cucumber, tomato, red onion, Kalamata olives, and chunks of feta make up the Athena salad ($10.95), the perfect palate-refresher to anything else you order.
The gyro plate ($14.50) brings a heap of thinly sliced seasoned beef cooked on a vertical rotisserie, along with soft pita, and more of those garlic fries. Tuck the succulent meat into the pita, along with tomatoes, onions and a smear of tzatziki sauce for a taste of comfort.
The mixed grill ($24.95) is ideal for those who can’t decide between a chicken thigh or a lamb loin kebab. That’s because you get one of each here, along with rice, and a veggie side of soft, caramelized peppers, squash and carrots. The chicken is halal, too.
Desserts are made in-house, including the ravani ($5), a wedge of light yet crumbly cake made of semolina and almonds. Our piece was just bordering on being a little dry, but the orange syrup added more moisture along with a lovely, honey-like taste.
Pro Tip: On Fridays — and only on Fridays — Athena Grill also offers Galatoboureko ($5.50), a dessert of crisp phyllo with a center of creamy semolina custard. Enjoy it with a Greek coffee ($3.95), as potent as espresso and served with the grounds sunk at the bottom of the cup.
Rozmary Kitchen, Mountain View and San Rafael
When I picked up four sandwiches at pop-up Rozmary Kitchen in Mountain View, I almost felt like I could get in a bicep-curl workout at the same time. These 10-inch-long sandos are hefty — with four of them weighing nearly 5 pounds all together.
Even more impressive, though, is their taste.
Nick Rappoport, who cooked at The French Laundry in Yountville and Outerlands in San Francisco, and his wife, Melissa Johnson, a catering manager at Stanford University, started their pop-up earlier this year. It’s located at the commercial kitchen of The Midwife and The Baker. In fact, that outstanding baking company makes a special Dutch crunch roll just for these sandwiches. The rolls are wonderfully chewy, with an almost Mexican concha-like crackling top.
Rozmary Kitchen’s pop-up is only on Fridays there, 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. You must pre-order, too. No walk-up orders at the outside window are allowed. The menu drops every Wednesday online. For those in Marin County, Rozmary Kitchen can also be found at the Marin Civic Center farmers market on Thursdays and Sundays.
There are four sandwiches available. They are $16 each, with the exception of the vegan one, which is $15. And they are all outstanding, and as far from basic as it gets.
The “Shake Hands with Beef” consists of a wad of thinly sliced top-round roast beef enfolded around spring pea and green garlic ricotta for creaminess, pecorino for sharp saltiness, crispy shallots for crunch, mild pickled horn peppers for piquancy, and a tangy Caesar aioli to tie everything together.
The “Fanucchi” is a gourmet version of an Italian hoagie classic with pistachio mortadella, soppressata, capicola, and sharp provolone with shredded lettuce, aioli, and a spunky, spicy cherry pepper relish.
As the name implies, “My Saigon Cali” is a California-ized, vegan version of a banh mi piled with smoked coriander-crusted sweet potato slices, avocado, pickled carrots and daikon, jalapenos, cucumbers, crispy shallots, fresh Vietnamese herbs, and sweet-chili vegan mayo. It’s a mouthful of creaminess with enough heat to wake up every taste bud. It’s also one of the most distinctive vegan sandwiches you’ll ever enjoy.
My favorite just might have been the “Mo’betta Turchetta.” It’s moist turkey breast that somehow tastes magically like porky porchetta. Smoky and sweet, it’s garnished with oven-dried, marinated tomatoes; arugula; aioli; and pickled pepper-sultana salsa verde. It’s what I want my Thanksgiving turkey to taste like from now on.
Pro Tip: If you pick up your sandwiches by 12:30 p.m. on Friday in Mountain View, you can also time it to get pre-orders of bread and pastries from The Midwife and The Baker to make your outing a two-fer.
Just note, too, that there is a four-item limit per person for Rozmary Kitchen orders. So, for instance, if you want to try each of the four sandwiches, you won’t be able to get the “Big Ol’ Market Salad” ($9.50), as well. But hey, that just gives you an excuse to come back. As if you needed the nudge.