It would not be fair to describe My Greek Kitchen as a hole-in-the-wall. Sure, the front of the restaurant is completely obscured by a row of gas pumps and there is almost no signage on Costa Mesa’s busy 17th Street — also home to places like Crack Shack and the first-ever Sidecar Doughnuts — but that’s okay. This tiny Greek storefront possesses its own kind of charm, and comes with the kind of service and flair that one might expect of a restaurant with servers and tablecloths.
What owner Tasos Lilis lacks in table decor he makes up for with an indelible charm. Lilis leaves an impression on everyone who comes through the door, whether it’s just by simply asking about their meal or wishing them a good day on their way out. Want the recipe for the restaurant’s meatballs? Lilis is happy to oblige (It’s a mix of ground beef, pork, bread crumbs, eggs, and garlic, for starters) and quick with a joke along the way. “Bye!” he shouts lovingly to a regular on a recent afternoon. “Tell your husband he’s a troublemaker!”
Lilis, a career restaurateur, was born and raised in Greece, immigrating to Long Beach in 1978 where he quickly found work in area kitchens. Over the course of his career, he’s done American diner fare, he’s cooked pizza, he’s overseen a steakhouse and a sushi bar, and he’s even run a hospital cafeteria. Locals may know him best for his full-service foray into Greek fare at Aegean Cafe in Laguna Beach, which enjoyed an 18-year run between 1991 and 2009 (he sold it in 1998). His nomadic lifestyle has brought him to Los Angeles, Seattle, back to Greece, up the Central Coast to Lompoc, and over to Hacienda Heights. Rather than retire after a long life on the road, Lilis decided to open My Greek Kitchen in Costa Mesa five years ago.
“It’s been a joy working here,” says Lilis. “We have great customers and we have maintained personal relationships with them. People call me to say they enjoy the food. That’s the ultimate reward.”
Costa Mesa worked for Lilis for a number of reasons. It’s a dense city not far from the water, for one, and it’s already known for its wealth of local restaurants — though, notably, it lacked a Greek restaurant. When asked to distinguish between his style of cooking versus Mediterranean, Lilis stresses the well-balanced flavors achieved with fewer seasonings and the consistent use of garlic, onions, and olive oil as a Greek base. Poultry is the kitchen’s number one seller and the filet mignon kabobs are also a hit, but he’s proudest of some of his under-the-radar and deeply Greek dishes like the lemony avgolemono soup or the pastichio, a thick macaroni dish layered between ground beef and bechamel.
Want to know what Lilis himself likes from the menu? Just ask him. (The answer is a chicken kabob plate with tzatziki and baby okra baked in a light tomato sauce, which he eats every day.)
Over the hum of appliances, Lilis expresses his appreciation for loyal customers. “Quite honestly, I would never expect in my wildest dreams the numbers I do here,” he says. Word-of-mouth recommendations and a reputation for quality Greek food have helped tremendously, despite the gas station in front. My Greek Kitchen is also well-placed for Costa Mesa, close to multiple freeways but backed up against a neighborhood filled with single-family homes — and wealthier Newport Beach is just down the street. With only a handful of tables inside, 90 percent of the restaurant’s business is takeout.
With its mighty team of four kitchen staffers and a handful of front-of-house folks (including Lilis’s son and daughter), My Greek Kitchen has also become a reliable catering option for the area. Despite the compact 1,600 square foot space, Lilis has dialed in the kitchen to run so efficiently that he says the team can turn out a $200 takeout order in about 15 minutes, without sacrificing smaller pickups or dine-in requests that arrive at the same time. During the busiest hours, usually 4 p.m. to 6 p.m. nightly, Lilis adds a table to the front dining area near the register, which is used exclusively for delivery orders.
Despite the speed and the space, Lilis insists that the restaurant is still turning out some of the highest-quality Greek food in all of Orange County. “Quality prevails no matter what,” he stresses, pointing out heirloom tomatoes in a salad nearby. While the cost of goods for a comparable restaurant often hovers around 30 percent, My Greek Kitchen runs closer to 42 percent, a product of larger portion sizes as well. It’s not “cheap” food by any measure, but a plate with protein, rice pilaf, salad, vegetables, and pita is still usually well below $20.
All those plates have begun to add up. Lilis is doing something in the neighborhood of $2 million in yearly sales at My Greek Kitchen, though it’s money that he’s usually pouring back into the restaurant, not pocketing. He has contemplated a second location elsewhere but fears losing the magic and momentum of his hidden little Costa Mesa original.
For now, he’s content with concentrating on just the one, knowing that his children will ultimately take over when he decides to retire (for real) in a few years. He plans to begin spending summers in Greece, leading the life of a retired serial restaurateur with an eye for quality food and a knack for chatting up just about everyone. For now, though, find him munching away on baked okra or steering customers towards the pastichio, happy that after all those years this is the life he’s built, on his terms.
“Success makes money,” he says, “but money doesn’t necessarily make success.”
My Greek Kitchen is open daily at 204 E. 17th Street, Costa Mesa, CA 92627, with lunch through dinner hours from 11 a.m. to 9 p.m., or 10 p.m. on Friday and Saturday nights.