The main streets around Los Angeles International Airport aren’t particularly promising for ethnic cuisine – lots of places catering to the tourist and office lunch crowd, but few destination restaurants. However, the side streets in Westchester have some hidden gems – an excellent Thai restaurant, an eclectic Middle Eastern place, and most relevant to this review, a world-class Greek taverna.
Aliki’s looks unpromising from the outside – it is located in a corner of a motel, right where you’d expect to find a boring coffee shop. The first clue that something more interesting is going on is right inside the door – a rack of Greek pastas and olive oils that Aliki’s imports and offers for sale, with a refrigerator of Greek cheeses next to it. That focus is essential in a cuisine that revolves around revealing and subtly enhancing good ingredients rather than masking them.
The restaurant has a simply decorated but pleasant dining room in the traditional Greek colors of blue and white and a back patio in the midst of motel rooms. Wherever you sit, you will be handed a mind-bogglingly large menu – the classic Greek favorites like souvlaki and pastisio are here, but so are more arcane items like lahanadolmades, Greek-style stuffed cabbage in lemon sauce.
I tried this as an appetizer and found it delicious though oversauced – there was so much left over that we went through a basket of pita bread mopping it up and still had some left. This was only a problem because we wanted to be sure to have room for our main courses – the pita bread here is handmade and far better than the usual stuff, so it’s worth the calories. The bread was also good with their spicy feta cheese dip, which was both cooling and peppery in a very enjoyable way. It is made with Epirus feta, which is creamier and richer than the stuff you usually find in supermarkets, and the difference shows.
On a recent visit Aliki herself served us, and we asked whether she makes traditional style Greek gyros rather than the ones most common in America that use a kind of lamb and beef meatloaf. She replied that California law makes the traditional slow-cooking method for gyros illegal. I haven’t tried the gyros here, though I’m sure they’re better than the fast food standard, but there are so many other things here that are more interesting.
I have enjoyed tsipoura, the Greek sea bream, simply grilled with lemon and herbs and served with potatoes and vegetables, a fine fish dinner for those who appreciate simple pleasures. The roast lamb is delicious, but be aware that it is cooked medium-well the way Greeks like it, not rare, which is stylish in California. This makes it very tender and concentrates the flavor, and even if you usually like your meats lightly cooked you might want to try it.
Aliki’s moussaka was particularly noteworthy; at many restaurants this dish of eggplant and potatoes layered with beef and cheese is hearty but bland. Here there is robust use of garlic and oregano, with a bed of lightly spicy tomato sauce to add color and flavor. The portion is generous, and at $13 it’s a bargain.
The pork souvlaki rivals the moussaka – two large skewers that have had time to get friendly with an olive oil, garlic, and oregano marinade before being perfectly cooked. They are served with a dollop of fresh tzatzikui sauce, green beans cooked with tomatoes and garlic, and a choice of lemon potatoes or seasoned rice. The potatoes are fine but I prefer the rice, which is cooked in a vegetable stock with a bit of chopped spinach.
I barely have room for dessert here, but if you like baklava, it is freshly made and crisp, or you may try the Greek yoghurt with honey and walnuts, which is delightful. If you get the baklava, the custard filled and honey laced galaktobouriko, or one of the sweet desserts, you might want to get Greek coffee to match it – the strong, rich flavor is perfect alongside sweets.
Aliki’s has a loyal following among Hellene expatriates, one of the very few Greek restaurants in Los Angeles with an uncompromising attitude toward authenticity. The prices are higher than fast food Greek places, but not greatly so, and in return you get the real thing.
Aliki’s Taverna is at 5862 Arbor Vitae St., near the corner of Airport Boulevard in Westchester. Open daily except Sunday, 11 a.m. – 10 p.m., closed Monday. Street parking only, no wine or beer, children welcome. Wheelchair access good, some vegetarian/vegan items. §