SANTA FE, N.M. — “Watch out for overly thick or not adequately cooked eggplant,” a friend texted me. A native of Dionysos, Greece, she was describing the texture of an exemplary moussaka. “It should all meld together in an oily ambrosia.”
Half an hour later, I forked into a golden square of the casserole on a blue tin plate at Yamas Greek Rotisserie, which opened on Cerrillos Road last November. It was ambrosia, all right.
At Yamas, the moussaka is served comfortingly warm, with a burnished crust of béchamel dotted with parsley. The pillowy cheese cradles a melty ribbon of eggplant between a toothier slice of potato. A base of cinnamon-spiced ground lamb and beef sauces the whole strata.
Two men in line to order consulted a paper menu, conferring in stage whispers about what I was eating. “That looks like heaven, whatever it is,” one of them said. He wasn’t wrong.
The Greek roots of the Yamas owners run deep.
In the 1930s, current Plaza Café owner Daniel Razatos’ father came to Santa Fe from Kefalonia and got a job at the downtown restaurant, eventually buying it in the early ’50s. Razatos said that, back in the day, his dad was reluctant to put family recipes on the Plaza menu. Razatos Sr. was known to mutter, “Nobody comes to New Mexico to eat Greek food.”
Now, at the two Plaza Café locations and their sister restaurant, Café Sonder, stray Mediterranean dishes pop up among New Mexican and diner classics. There’s a Greek chicken salad at Plaza Café Southside, moussaka at Café Sonder, a gyro at the Plaza downtown. But Yamas, which means “Cheers!”, is the first menu the Razatos family has dedicated fully to their heritage.
The choices in the refurbished blue-and-white, wood- and brick-paneled restaurant are diverse and well-suited to a fast-casual crowd. With efficient, kind, no-frills service and spotless tables, it’s no wonder we joined a lunch rush on each daytime visit. (If you’re seeking solitude, the place was blessedly empty one freezing evening around 5.)
Patrons order at the counter and receive a number, then grab their own napkins, utensils and a glass of water or a bottled drink. A festive Greek soundtrack may whisk you away on an Aegean reverie. But the picture window exposing Cerrillos Road traffic and the occasional pedestrian may dampen the fantasy, at least until your food arrives.
Pita-bread sandwiches anchor the menu, with a traditional gyro or falafel, pork, chicken, lamb or beef fillings. All meats are cooked rotisserie-style, and are also available as plates with one side and a small salad.
The regular gyro is a satisfyingly sized curl of stuffed pita that makes for a well-priced lunch ($7.50). Mine housed four layers of a richly seasoned, crusty lamb-beef blend, red onion, tomato (surprisingly juicy for January) and chopped romaine. The sturdy structure was judiciously drizzled with spicy tzatziki, accented by lemon, garlic, dill, cumin and roasted jalapeño. Tzatziki is also available in traditional (no heat) and red, which includes tomato, paprika, cayenne and parsley.
Fledgling Yamas customers might start with the sampler plate ($15), which can feed two grazers. It includes tzatziki, green hummus (blended with parsley), vinegary taramasalata, hummus (a little grainy), excellent grape leaves, a mound of fresh Greek salad and pita for scooping. We fortified the sampler with a side of luscious seared lamb chunks.
The tender, tangy roasted chicken gives other pollo purveyors in town a run for their money. It’s $9.50 for a generous quarter, a small salad and one side. The long list of side choices includes several from the sampler plate alongside items like spanakopita, fried zucchini or feta, Greek or regular fries and “juicy potatoes,” or home fries seasoned with rotisserie chicken juice (how do you say “yes, please,” in Greek?).
The zucchini fritters ($7) are wickedly good fried clouds of (perhaps too much) batter, feta, Parmesan and squash served with tzatziki. A side of falafel ($5) was tasty, but dense, and thus a tad dry.
If you get the chicken, spring for a side of pita ($2), something we wish were provided free of charge. The siren song of multiple sides means checks can climb quickly at Yamas.
Salad devotees will be satiated by the very good Greek one ($10.50), appropriately crunchy with fresh romaine, cucumber, tomato, caper berries, kalamata olives, dolmas and a zippy house-made red wine vinaigrette. The bulgur-cauliflower salad ($12.90) is a virtuous amalgam of the two with cucumber, feta, crackly fried chickpeas, sweet peppers, red onions, pecans and a garlicky lemon dressing.
Getting back to the idea of heaven, or more specifically, an Elysian field of lemon-scented sunshine: get the avgolemono soup ($6). Fighting a lingering flu on a frigid day, I spooned up a bowl of the traditional broth of shredded chicken, lemon juice and egg yolk, imagining a heated blanket swaddling my senses. I’m ever on the lookout for a cozy elixir to rival pho, ramen or green chile stew, and make no mistake: There’s a new soup in town.
Don’t forget to try the crispy baklava ($5), stickily layered with honey and toasted walnuts. Yamas excels at the classics.