Cooler weather may not have arrived, but Houston's fall festival season is already here. After a couple minor events over the past couple weeks, The Original Greek Festival returns to the Annunciation Greek Orthodox Cathedral complex.
There are two signature aspects of the event: The crowds and the food. Festival co-chairs Stathy Demeris and Dana Kantalis have made some positive changes to minimize the negative aspects of the crowd and enhance the deliciousness of the food.
Less sitting on curbs trying to balance a full gyro plate is definitely a good thing.
First, in recognition that seating can be at a premium, especially on Friday night and all day Saturday, the festival has taken over Kipling and will use it to offer more tables and chairs. Less sitting on curbs trying to balance a full gyro plate is definitely a good thing. Also, the festival has partnered with jitney service The Wave to offer a free shuttle.
In addition to the usual shuttle lot at Lamar High School, festival goers can also park in City of Houston Lot H at Memorial Drive and Houston Avenue. Shuttles will depart every 15 minutes from both locations, and the festival will have bike racks available on Kipling for pedal pushers. There's no excuse to park in the neighborhood and risk getting ticketed and/or towed.
Beginning in July, dozens of volunteers spend hundreds of hours at the church shaping meatballs (keftedes), rolling grape leaves (dolmades) and skewering filet mignon (souvlaki). Kantalis says that "people of all ages" participate in these volunteer cooking sessions, because "everyone wants to be part of the festival."
Just to give some sense of the scale of the operation, here are some numbers:
Around 7,200 pounds of beef tenderloin have been skewered to make 20,542 souvlaki ($7).
There are 25,000 meatballs that will be served two at a time on the dinner plates ($12).
The festival features 16, 917 Tiropita (phyllo dough filled with cheese, $3) and 18,328 spanakopita (phyllo dough filled with cheese and spinach, $3).
20,445 pieces of baklava will be made fresh this week ($2 each).
There are only 10,380 dolmades ($6 for four). Demeris says they're the first item to sell out every year and among the hardest items to make because of the prep required to flatten, fill and roll each grape leaf.
After a tasting this week, I'm happy to report that the food is as delicious as ever. Typically, I'm so focused on the gyro that I miss out on the other options, but the dinner plate's Greek lasagna (pastitisio) that features savory, spiced ground beef in a rice bechamel sauce is a worthy alternative. Another new-to-me dish is Greek rice pudding (rizogalo, $3) that's topped with cinnamon for a not-too-sweet, creamy dessert that Kantalis says goes great with coffee and is the most popular breakfast item for the festival's volunteers. A mezedes plate ($5) that includes pita bread, feta cheese and kalamata is a new addition to this year's menu.
As always, there's a full selection of Greek wine available, and splitting a bottle or two among friends is a great way to get in the festival spirit. Good news for beer nerds; new this year are four craft beer options from Karbach, Saint Arnold, Firestone Walker and Goose Island.
Go and eat. Then stick around. Dancers, both kids and young adults, have been practicing for months. Clergy members lead tours through the cathedral, and there's always something to buy in the marketplace.
Of the efforts required to keep the festival growing for 47 years, Kantalis says simply, "It takes a village."
The Original Greek Festival takes place through Oct. 6 at the Annunciation Greek Orthodox Cathedral Complex, 3511 Yoakum Blvd. Hours Thursday 5 p.m. - 10 p.m.; Friday 11 a.m. - 3 p.m. and 5 p.m. - 10 p.m.; Saturday 11 a.m. - 10 p.m.; Sunday 12 p.m. - 6 p.m. (food service while it lasts). Admission is $5. Children 12 and under are free.