Greek in East

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    College students and cheap, ethnic eateries seem to go hand in hand. Where there's a school of higher learning, you'll usually find a stable of offbeat, funky restaurants where the young and impoverished can chart untried culinary territory.

    For sure, the University of Central Florida area needs more of these type of restaurants. But for the last nine years, while the surrounding area exploded with cookie-cutter subdivisions and food chains, the low-key Falafel Cafe has been dishing out a taste of the Middle East to students and others hooked on the culture's culinary favors.

    Falafel Cafe is quite small, with less than two dozen tables. There's no view to speak of, but an enormous painting dominates the entrance, capturing a scene from the Beirut waterfront. Back in the 1970s, that's where chef Hind Dajani perfected her recipes as a mother of four. Piped-in Middle Eastern music enhances the cuisine. And while service isn't always fast, it's usually friendly.

    Descriptions of each dish make the menu reader-friendly. And if you can't commit to any one item, skip the entrees and fill up on tapas-style appetizers, which are in the $2 to $5 range.

    Vegetarian dishes are a Middle Eastern strength, and Dajani is particularly deft with the namesake falafels ($3.99) – fried croquettes made with crushed garbanzo and fava beans, onions and a mixed bag of seasonings. They're delicious by themselves or dipped in the accompanying tahini sauce, a thick paste of ground sesame seeds. Kibbe balls ($4.99) are similar, except they're made with bulghur wheat and seasoned ground beef.

    Falafel Cafe's hummus ($2.49) is creamy and tempting, made with pureed garbanzo beans, sesame sauce, olive oil and garlic. A splash of lemon brings out the naturally nutty flavors. Baba ghanoush ($2.49) gets a similar treatment, made of eggplant mashed to a pulp and mixed with yogurt. Use it as a dip for pita bread, or better yet, ask for the garlic bread pita ($1.99), which is brushed with butter and minced garlic.

    The success of the simple "cedar salad" ($7.99) is in the fresh ingredients. Bright greens are topped with herb-crusted chicken kababs, olives and peppers. Pickled turnips add hot-pink color.

    When you're in the mood for warm, hearty Middle Eastern cooking, you'll find it here.

    When you think of deep-fried squid, the word "beautiful" doesn't usually come to mind. But what we saw at Olympia Restaurant changed our minds. Sitting before us was a simple platter of what the Greek refer to as kalamari: a delicate, undulating tangle of generously carved squid steaks. They were lightly fried with a lacy batter and presented with lemon wedges, fried onions and peppers.

    We could almost taste the Greek elements -- sunshine, earth and sea -- that inspired the food which kept coming out of the kitchen on the night we visited. While this restaurant is elegant in a gently worn way, the setting is decidedly humble on Colonial Drive, east of Goldenrod Road. Like a hardy olive tree that's rooted deep, Olympia Restaurant has been serving authentic Greek cuisine since 1979.

    Although it's been nearly 40 years since the Vasiliadis family left Greece for America, they make regular pilgrimages back to the islands for culinary inspiration, from the tiniest fishing villages to the streets of Athens. Then they bring their impressions back to Orlando and work them into the menu, which is made up of old family recipes which have been tweaked through the years.

    In addition to the kalamari ($6.95), we also had a feta saganaki appetizer ($5.95), which was a satisfying platter of steamy pita wedges arranged around a pot of warm dipping sauce, made of melted feta cheese, olives, pepperoncinis.

    The "Hercules platter" ($13.95) is an easy way to sample the menu, featuring roast lamb and gyro meat. There also were dolmathes, marinated grape leaves wrapped around a stuffing of spiced beef, onions and rice, spanakopita, a delicate spinach pastry wrapped in flaky phyllo dough, and tsatsiki, a mild dipping sauce of yogurt, cucumbers and garlic. There also was a taste of moussaka, which my guest ordered as a full entree ($8.95). That's hearty but mild dish built of layers of sliced and fried potatoes on the bottom, fried eggplant and spicy ground beef in the middle, and a light, creamy béchamel sauce on top.

    Our waitress was attentive and thorough, yet she gave us our space. This is a pleasant spot for a leisurely dining respite. And on Friday and Saturday nights, the setting includes traditional belly dancing shows at 9 p.m. and 10:30 p.m.

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