Not-So-Starving Artists: Samos Restaurant by Miriam DesHarnais

I have a theory of dining out. The meals I find most satisfying fall into a specific zone, which I have dubbed The Value Triangle. The base of The Value Triangle is Deliciousness. Why bother eating out at all if it doesn’t taste great? The two other sides of the triangle are Cost – the price of the meal – and convenience, which I prefer to describe as Lack of Hassle. Hassle’s hallmark is that it leaves you feeling angry, or at least annoyed. Emotion associated with cost being misaligned to experience: guilt. Emotion when you pay actual money for a meal that is simply not delicious: deep, existential sadness. I want to bring you more of the feelings you get when you dine within The Value Triangle. Ideally, eating “in the zone” will make you feel elated, clever, and possibly a little sleepy.

A clear-cut example of Value Triangle Dining is Greektown mainstay Samos Restaurant, open since 1977. It’s known for utterly consistent satisfying, well-prepared Greek and Greek American comfort food, served in large portions. The waitresses recognize regulars, but are equally (briskly and efficiently) kind to newcomers. It’s that rare place that feels special and casual at the same time.

On my last visit my husband and I were seated next to a pair of old friends discussing the election, and then a father and son who seemed to be having a comfortable meal together, despite not exchanging a single word. It’s a family restaurant, a date restaurant, a late(ish) night spot and a perfect place to meet hungry friends and binge together on the obscenely good soft golden pita triangles.

Meal cost varies widely, depending on whether you want to leave stuffed to the gills or just pleasantly full. The Tour of Samos ($24 per person, minimum two people) is a not uncommon birthday request in my family, which results in the latter level of satiation. It consists of Greek salad, tzatziki and pita, fried kalamari, spinach pie, chicken souvlaki, dolmades, lamb chops, garlic shrimp, gyro and roasted potatoes.

samos entree

Then again, if you want to eat an appropriately sized portion for lunch, you could get just a pita sandwich ($6.00-$7.50). A large greek salad ($8.50) would be more accurately described as “huge” and comes with the ubiquitous and always welcome pita wedges from heaven. At the Canton location (Samos Greek Island Grill, 3745 Boston Street) I caught a man looking balefully at my bowl of avgolemono (egg lemon) soup as his table filled with dishes. “I think I over-ordered” he muttered. There are worse things.

On a recent visit my husband and I went the moderate feasting route, sharing a bowl of avgolemono, the vegetarian dolmades, and the chicken souvlaki entree, which includes two skewers of chicken, pita with tzatziki, a small greek salad (with more pita and more tzatziki,) roasted potatoes (oh, glorious roasted potatoes!) and roasted mixed vegetables. Pre-tip that’s about $16 a person for a leisurely multi-course meal with no false steps and some real highlights.

The avgolemono is not wildly different from any creamy chicken stew, but the lemon adds a brightness to the flavor and the chunks of chicken are large and plentiful. A big bowl of this can rival miso or matzoh ball soup – “the Jewish penicillin” – for curative magic if you are feeling under the weather.

Next up were the vegetarian dolmades (stuffed grape leaves) which are possibly my favorite item on the menu. If you’ve only had those clammy canned grape leaves featuring cold squashed rice in an overwhelmingly strong wrapper, you need to give these warm little packets of savory goodness a try. Topped with a lemony dill sauce and accompanied (of course) by Samos’ signature fluffy pita bread and their creamy and refreshing tzatziki, this is an appetizer that could serve as a satisfying vegetarian entree. The warm rice is mixed with vegetables- tomatoes and maybe carrots – to a texture similar to what you find in really good hungarian roast peppers.

samos-salad

The Greek salad would be a pretty standard iceberg, cucumber and tomato affair, but it’s elevated by a smooth homemade dressing, generous chunks of nice feta, anchovies (optional) and black olives. It’s served with (must I say it?) pita and is worth getting in order to balance the meal.

The chicken souvlaki is rubbed with oregano, cooked golden and crispy but not dry, and is accompanied by pita, tzatziki, a small tomato salad, a vegetable of the day – in this case squash and string beans – and another must-have item, the olive oil roasted potatoes. These are large, slightly salty perfectly-saturated potato pieces served in a pool of savory drippings from slow cooked onions. They taste like they are roasted with chicken, but I’ve confirmed that they are legit vegetarian.

A few hints, starting with the obvious: you probably don’t need to order pita bread or tzatziki, unless you’re not ordering anything that comes with it; feel free to ask. Samos doesn’t take reservations or credit cards, but there’s an ATM in the back. It’s BYOB with a $2/person corking charge. If you arrive any time in the evening, or really most times of the day, you may find a line of diners waiting on benches for their tables.

Even if it looks like people are standing in line, make a quick trip past them to the register to add your name to the list. Things tend to move quickly, but I’d recommend a weeknight or early lunch time trip for a first visit. Samos is popular, which if the food were less good, could cause the hassle factor to weigh heavier, but a little timing adjustment usually does the job.

samosdoor

As an aside, a friend was just asking if I think it’s a Baltimore thing to not be open normal hours. Maybe? I remember the coffee shop that wasn’t open mornings. The last time I tried to go to a weekend brunch at what I thought was a pretty standard 10:30am, the first place I tried had already moved on to lunch and the second place I called didn’t start serving brunch until noon. Oof. Samos is open a perfectly respectable- and easy to remember 11:00 am to 9:00 pm, Monday through Saturday. If ever the wait seems longer than you can take, you’re not really that far from the aforementioned Canton Crossing location. It looks like a chain, is less cozy, and may be about two percent less delicious, but it’s still a perfectly solid option, with easy parking and Sunday hours.

Samos restaurant has food I crave if I haven’t been there in a while. It’s not fancy, but it’s on my shortlist for places to take out of town visitors. I genuinely want to try the other places in Greektown. The one other place I’ve tried was closed by the health department this year. Once I tried Samos, none of neighbors have really stood a chance for real estate in my heart.  If there’s somewhere equally good, I’d love to know. Until then I’m happy to be drawn, tractor-beam style, back to Samos, again and again.

The Bill
Avgolemono bowl $4.95
Vegetarian dolmades $7.50
Souvlaki platter $16.50

Samos Restaurant
600 Oldham Street
Baltimore, MD 21224

Author Miriam DesHarnais has lived in Baltimore since 2002 and is passionate about exploring tucked-away spots to find food that is satisfying on all levels. She loves the podcast Undisclosed and borrowing audiobooks for free from the public library.