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Leo’s Castle much more American than Greek

By Eric E. Harrison

This article was published August 8, 2013 at 2:41 a.m.


Leo’s Gyros Platter offers a generous portion of sliced roasted meat with pita and tzatziki; you can substitute, as we did, a Greek salad for the fries.

The venerable Leo’s Greek Castle, a Hillcrest landmark for decades, has been through another change in ownership. And while co-owner Frank Cox III promises some changes - “putting a nice porch on the front” is among his priorities, he says - you would probably notice very little change so far, at least on the surface.

There is the yellow placard in the window noting that the restaurant has applied for a mixed-drinks permit. (Cox says there are no plans whatsoever to add a full-fledged bar, just making it possible to serve ouzo or the occasional Sunday-brunch bloody Mary.)

And there have been a few menu changes, mostly eliminating items like the pastitso that didn’t sell well.

The place looks about as far from a castle as you can imagine. It started life more than 60 years ago as a barbecue shack, low-slung with a terra-cotta roof, and has since been semi-surrounded by an arc-shaped strip center. Accentuating its resemblance to a gas station that Bonnie and Clyde might have robbed in mid-Depression, you have to go outside to access the restroom.

You can seat about two dozen people, cheek by jowl, in the tiny but homey dining room, and perhaps as many on the picnic-tabled patio. The interior decor has a vague blue and-white Hellenic accent, with dark blue plasticized tablecloths, in contrast to the white metal in the chairs, and a blue white wallpaper with classical columns that, more closely re-examined for the first time in several years, look more Roman or Italianate than Greek.

The menu, too, has a slight Hellenic accent, most heavily reflected in the appetizers, but an entree list that includes gyros, shishkebab and falafel. Most of it, however, is American, and not even Greek-American - chicken, turkey and club sandwiches, chicken-fried steak, a Chili Mac Platter and a half dozen types of burgers.

Two-thirds of the tripartite menu is more or less “pure American,” including a baker’s half-dozen varieties of gourmet burgers made of meat and two of vegetables, and a selection of American platters and sandwiches.

Plus, there’s Leo’s breakfast, one of the best in town, and served until 4 p.m. (and therefore all day Sunday).

Leo’s $7.99 Country Breakfast, for example, is as good as we’ve had - two eggs made the way you want ’em (if you want ’em fried, they’re lightly fried in butter); choice of ham, bacon or sausage; hash browns; biscuit and gravy. If you want something a little less filling, go for the Eye Opener ($5.99), minus the hash browns and the gravy (choice of toast or biscuit, or you can blow an extra 50 cents on an English muffin).

The best bet on the menu, if you’re going Greek, is the Gyros Platter ($8.99), a more-than-generous portion of tasty, surprisingly tender gyros meat in nearly foot-long, two inch-wide strips (you’ll need a knife and fork to manage ’em) with a small bowl of tangy tzatziki (a cucumber-yogurt mixture), onions and sliced tomatoes.

On the side: a pile of oversize fries (they’re OK if you dine in and eat them quickly; after they’d sat for a few minutes on our plate, and particularly the ones in our take-out box, they got flabby fast).

Onion rings are a $1.49-extra option; so is a small Greek salad. We’d count as definitely worth our investment the small Greek salad: mixed greens with feta crumbles and a side container of fairly vivid, house made vinaigrette.

If you’re going “American,” you cannot go wrong with one of Leo’s gourmet burgers. Our Royal Burger ($6.49) is one of the smaller offerings - just a quarter-pound (some, with double patties, are half-pounders) - grilled perfectly and topped with grilled mushrooms and American cheese. We kept the mustard and pickles but shed the mayonnaise, lettuce, tomato and onion.

Our experience with Leo’s Mediterranean appetizers was decidedly mixed at best. Relatively new on the menu is the Baba Ghannouj ($4.59), eggplant pureed with tahini (a sesame paste), garlic, parsley, lemon juice and olive oil. Ours was of excellent consistency but rather, surprisingly, on the salty side.

We were disappointed in our chickpea-sesame Hummus Dip ($4.59). It has always been a little on the thin side at Leo’s, so we expected that, but it was, for the first time, distressingly bland, lacking garlic or lemon juice or much flavor of any kind. They’re available also as a $6.49 combo dip package.

We enjoyed the flavor of our Spanakopita ($3.75), a nicely large phyllo puff pastry filled with spinach and feta, but ours had been compressed on the grill, presumably to cook it faster, so it came out a little greasy and with a passing resemblance to a quesadilla.

Somebody either skimped on, or forgot to include, the garlic in our Gazpacho Soup ($2.49 cup, $4.49 bowl), also a relatively new addition, a served-cold puree of tomatoes, onion, bell pepper and cucumbers. We needed a shot of hot sauce from the bottle on the table to give this enough flavor to make it worthwhile.

A recent conversation with Cox exploded a myth that Leo’s made its baklava, which is on display with several other desserts in the refrigerator case under the front counter. It is handmade, but imported from a little old lady’s bake shop in Chicago. Anyway, it’s well worth the $1.79.

You get table service from the cashier-waiter if you’re eating in (otherwise you order, and pay, at the front counter), and food comes out of the kitchen fairly quickly. Service, one of the things Cox promised to improve, has improved; if the welcoming smiles on the faces of staff members got any broader, there’d be no room for them in the building.

Our one really negative experience at Leo’s involved that restroom, wherein the plumbing and electrical fixtures appear to be virtually unchanged from when Bonnie and Clyde robbed that gas station. Improvements to that should take priority over that nice porch Cox wants to put out front.

Parking at Leo’s is also a bit of a challenge - the building is a lot closer to Kavanaugh Boulevard than current city codes probably allow, so while it’s not hard to nose in and park, exercise extreme care backing up to avoid putting at risk you, your car and any nearby pedestrians.

Leo’s Greek Castle Address: 2925 Kavanaugh Blvd., Little Rock Hours: 7 a.m.-8 p.m. Monday-Saturday, 8 a.m.-4 p.m. Sunday Cuisine: Greek, Mediterranean, American Credit cards: V, MC, AE, D Alcoholic beverages: Wine, beer; mixed-drinks license applied for Reservations: No Wheelchair accessible: There’s a step to negotiate at the front door Carryout: Yes (501) 666-7414

Weekend, Pages 40 on 08/08/2013

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