My first trip to Greece was as an exchange student the summer after I graduated from high school. I had never left the country, except for a very brief and rather surreal dip into Mexico during a family road trip to California, and had never flown in a plane. To say I was unworldly, naive, and reticent would have been akin to calling Heracles a plucky fellow. Yet somehow I knew I wanted to go to Greece.
In Crete, the program placed me with a young office worker, a woman only a couple of years older than me. Her family lived in a tiny village two to three hours’ drive inland from Iraklion, the island’s capital, where Katherine had moved alone. Her tiny room held two cots, a table with two chairs, a hot plate, and a large sink that we used to wash produce, dishes, teeth, clothes, and ourselves, while standing on a towel. The toilet occupied a closet. We spent most of our time elsewhere.
Katherine spoke reasonable English, but her friends didn’t, nor did her family when we visited them. (The exchange program was in the summer because organizers assumed no American kid had learned enough Greek to attend school.) She usually worked six days a week, and she had a boyfriend, leaving me alone much of the time. Greece’s mail service never found me, if it even looked, and no one ever entertained the idea of making a fantastically expensive overseas phone call. I was on my own.
So I wandered, sat at the beach, and ate–a lot. Food on the island was quite inexpensive then, and if I was lonely or bored or unhappy, eating was always a pleasure. The discoveries I made!
Olive oil was the first–potatoes fried in it, greens doused with it, yogurt (also new) blended with it–all delicious. Lamb, which my father had kept off our table, now tempted me, heaped in gyros or roasted whole. During interludes between late lunches and truly late dinners, I’d meander to the corner stand for souvlaki, skewers of grilled pork. A neighboring kiosk beckoned me next, where a fellow fried balls of pastry dough and dropped them, hot and crispy, into honey syrup to soak before selling them in paper cones.
Decades later, my mother confided that when, at the end of the summer, I walked off the plane at Willow Run Airport, she and my father feared I was pregnant. I’m sure the billowing sundresses then in fashion didn’t make for a willowy figure, but the truth was I had gained so much weight during my Greek summer I could wear little else.
I’ve never lost my enthusiasm for the simple street foods of Greece. KouZina on Main St., where Middle Kingdom used to reside, lets me indulge again. Quirky imagined scenes of Ann Arbor life, often featuring vintage cars and U-M edifices, dot rustic painted brick walls. Polished concrete floors support butcher-block counters and tables with simple steel stands. The contemporary rear patio is sleek and inviting–a real boon to those who’d rather sit outside without the odors of Main St. traffic.
The menu is short, simple, and inexpensive, with a gyro ranging from $6.50 to $8 and a regular Greek salad costing $5.50. The lamb gyro is first-rate, with a fresh, made-as-you-watch, white, multi-grain, or gluten-free pita, thick and chewy, enfolding pressed meat sliced off the vertical rotisserie, tomato, onion, and tzatziki (yogurt sauce). It’s a standard formula, but the quality is several notches up from diner fare. My colleague loved the pork version–slices of shoulder marinated and stacked and slowly roasted–and there’s a chicken option for those (not me) who enjoy boneless, skinless breasts. Nor would I suggest the vegetarian gyro my friend tried. A zesty feta sauce, made with roasted peppers, couldn’t add enough spark to the fresh but essentially unseasoned raw and cooked vegetables to make an interesting sandwich. Whichever gyro you choose, add an order of fries, hand cut and crispy delicious.
As an alternative, the sandwich fillings can be had as a rice bowl, making for a pretty hearty meal. The filling in the spinach pie, spanakopita, is liberally laced with feta cheese, though one time it arrived with the phyllo under-baked and doughy. We liked the plain, sturdy lentil soup, but didn’t get to the Greek salad. Next time I will, to try their Greek dressing.
For dessert, KouZina’s creamy house-made yogurt comes with granola and seasonal fruit–in our case, a bright strawberry compote. Their baklava is thick with walnuts. Spying bougatsa on the counter–a phyllo pastry wrapped around a custard filling–I was initially thrilled, mistaking it for galaktoboureko, a past favorite somewhat similar in construction but bathed in a scented syrup. KouZina’s bougatsa is barely sweet; it could be eaten as an interesting breakfast entree or at lunch with a salad.
And that, minus the avgolemono lemon-rice soup and pita chips, is KouZina’s entire eat-in menu. Their website also lists a catering menu, coming out of their original Royal Oak store, that features a few additional dishes.
I hope those eventually migrate to the restaurant. Indulging in a couple of tiropitakia (cheese pies) and dolmades out on KouZina’s patio would be an ideal reminder of where I once was, where I am now, and the grand adventure in between.
332 S. Main St.
Daily 11 a.m.-10 p.m.
All items $3-$8.