By: Jason Perlow
After years of not having any good Greek food in Coral Springs at all, the city is experiencing something of an Athenian renaissance.
Back in May, Taverna Evia opened on University Drive in the renovated former location of The Egg and I, six years after Mythos closed in The Walk at Coral Springs in 2013.
Now, in an attempt to break the curse of restaurants that could not sustain themselves at The Walk, Nikol Zarbalas opened Hellenic Republic. It is an intimate cafe specializing in eclectic Greek-inspired and Mediterranean cuisine, located in the space once occupied by the short-lived Rise Donuts.
Zarbalas, a 15-year resident of Coral Springs with extensive catering experience, also owns Fat Belly Sandwich Company in Pompano Beach. Her restaurant is decidedly different from most other Greek restaurants in the area, which concentrate on boilerplate dishes and fashion themselves more like tavernas with large, all-encompassing menus.
Because the place is so tiny, with only 40 seats and the majority dedicated to outdoor patio dining, the menu selection is more curated, even quirky. Currently, most of the menu are items that could be characterized as Greek street foods, such as souvlakia (grilled kebabs) and mezedes (salads/dips).
With the restaurant having only a beer and wine license, no actual ouzo or mastika is served here, but there are other small plates that I would classify as ouzeria such as their meat and cheese boards. The list is also lacking what one might consider typical taverna fare such as spanakopita, moussaka, pastitsio, or avgolemono soup.
True, there are notable omissions from the menu, but what chef Nikol does have is extremely good. And while most of her mezes are fairly normal offerings, such as the revithosalata (hummus), meltizanosalata (eggplant dip), tirokafteri (spicy feta cheese dip), fried calamari, and the ubiquitous Greek salads, she also features some dishes that you’d be hard-pressed to find anywhere else.
Virtually everything that is served at this cafe is made from scratch, including the gyro, which is the restaurant’s top seller. Instead of using the typical Chicago-imported, ultra-processed meat slurry frozen foodservice salt bomb cones, Chef Nikol’s is made in-house from a mixture of beef and lamb and formed like a meatloaf, cooked whole and sliced into pieces for use in sandwiches and salads. It has a very different taste and texture when you compare it to classic Greek-American gyro meat.
For one, it is less salty than the commercial product. It also has a softer texture and a characteristic cumin flavor, which you usually find in shawarma instead of gyro meat. It’s very similar to the specimen I once had at Plaka, the legendary gyro shop in the Greek sponge diving town of Tarpon Springs, which has been shuttered since 2015.
My wife loves it, as do many of her customers. I prefer her pork souvlaki, which is marinated in herbs and lemon juice and grilled. It’s incredibly juicy and makes a fantastic lunch as either a sandwich wrap or a salad. And I also really enjoy her keftedes, which are seasoned grilled lamb and beef meatballs, served with tzatziki (cucumber-yogurt dip). The braised leg of lamb, which is slow-cooked for several hours, is also excellent.
All of her sandwiches go well with her thick hand-cut french fries, which are sensational. They’re cooked in the classic Belgian style, double-cooked by blanching at a lower temperature and then frying at a higher temperature to crisp.
Also great? Her fried green tomatoes with a spicy and creamy feta cheese sauce, reminiscent of a remoulade. Is it particularly Greek? I can’t say. But it sure is delicious.
It is these working-class and homestyle-type dishes that I prefer at Hellenic Republic. Yes, she has the $35 lamb chops, the $30 ribeye steak, the $26 grilled salmon, and $19 roasted chicken as one might expect at a place focused on providing an elevated dining experience, but the restaurant’s strengths lie in items that are different and unusual.
An example of this is her fried shrimp entree, which is wrapped in kataifi (a shredded wheat dough similar to phyllo used to make baklava and other Greek and Turkish pastries) and served over a beet juice-stained mashed potato with a honey drizzle. It is different and visually striking, but I think it might work better served over a salad, perhaps with roasted beets. Her other shrimp dish is served with trahanas, a feta-cheese infused semolina puree, which has a similar consistency to grits and is very good.
Another thing which I find endearing about Hellenic Republic is Chef Nikol’s commitment to using legitimately Greek ingredients. This was recently demonstrated to me when I heard about a recent shortage of halloumi, a squeaky, chewy, and pricey imported cheese from the island nation of Cyprus off the coast of Turkey. It’s made from goat’s milk and is prized for its use as a grilling cheese. Nikol uses it in a fried appetizer and on a pita wrap sandwich, and her customers love it.
The problem is, when she ran out, no distributor on the east coast of Florida had any she liked. So what did she do? She engaged in an Olympian cheese relay, having a friend retrieve it from a supplier in the aforementioned Greek bastion of Tarpon Springs and meeting her halfway in Cape Coral with the shipment. That’s a kind of dedication one seldom sees in South Florida.
Her quirkiness and dedication are also displayed in the aesthetics of the restaurant, which include tables that were custom-made out of reclaimed wood, as well as her decision not to use styrofoam take-out containers or plastic straws — she uses recycled paper and pasta tubes, instead.
In addition to most, if not all, of her ingredients being from Greece, her wine and beer list are entirely Greek as well. I quite enjoy her selections, particularly the malagousia, a bright, acidic, and ancient white varietal from Central Greece and Macedonia. It was an excellent pairing for the pork and seafood dishes that we had, and was pleasant to sip on the patio when dining al fresco in the balmy, breezy October weather. For a few moments, I forgot I was in South Florida and thought I was in the Mediterranean. Her red wine sangria, which is accented with raspberries, blackberries, and grapes, was a big hit with the ladies at the table.
If you aren’t absolutely stuffed by the time you are done with your appetizers and entrees, you’ll want to make room for the loukoumades — a type of Greek fried doughnut that is similar to a beignet or a zeppole. The traditional is dipped in a sweet syrup with cinnamon, but the restaurant has other variations, including one that has warm Nutella spread drizzled all over it.
2764 N University Drive, Coral Springs, FL 33065
Open seven days a week, 11 a.m. -10 p.m.