Cafe Athena is a quiet little place in a pleasant strip mall off of a major street in Pacific Beach. On the outside it appears as a quaint little collection of buildings, but inside is a light airy white washed room with bits of Greek decor here and there, enough to enliven the atmosphere but not enough to distract from the food. We arrived a little after noon, and were seated quickly. Our waiter was both patient and quick to answer questions, the majority of them about how to pronounce the items on the menu.
Thankfully I didn't even have to and after pointing to a couple of names on the menu the waiter left and we fell into an easy conversation until the first dish arrived. My fiancé got her Avgolemono, which is an egg lemon soup with rice Orzo and chicken broth. I took a sip of it and I thought I would love to have this if I had come down with a cold. It reminded me of chicken soup with a strong but not overpowering lemon flavoring to it. After polishing that off we got the rest of the dishes pretty much all at once.
Now ahead of time I apologize if this seems like a lot of description but I believe the combination of flavors and textures are what really sold me on this place, and I think it will help you understand just how complicated great Greek food can be. All right as an appetizer my sister surprisingly chose to get dolmathakia (Grape leaves stuffed with a blend of seasoned ground beef, rice and herbs. braised and served with Tzatziki sauce). After all the stories from my Lebanese friends about how their grandmother made the best grape leaves in existence I expected the Greek version to pale in comparison to theirs, but I was surprised by just how great it tasted. I didn't quite take to the Tzatziki sauce so I quickly found myself gobbling up the dolmathakia dry, before getting to the rest of the meal.
In addition to that my sister got a combination plate, the Macedonian Sampler. In it was Spanakptia (a blend of spinach, onion, feta cheese, eggs and basil between flaky filo), Bourekia (lean ground leg of lamb, pine nuts and onions in a filo roll), beef kebab and chicken Souvlaki (basically chicken and beef on skewers with the bits of zucchini, red bell pepper and onion), Briami (roasted vegetables with tomatoes, zucchini, potato usually roasted in olive oil) and rice pilaf. Again it came with Tzatziki sauce, but maybe this was a different batch because I definitely enjoyed it more. I, of course, took a bite of everything and found all of it cooked perfectly and incredibly tasty. The highlight of the plate was the Spanakptia, as I'm a sucker for anything with spinach and flaky filo, and the low point was the beef kebab. It just didn't taste all that great compared to the rest of what was there.
In between stealing most of my sister's meal I had ordered Papoutsakia (Italian eggplant filled with seasoned ground leg of lamb, onion and pine nuts. Topped with tomato sauce, fresh basil and Feta cheese. Wrapped in Pita bread). At first glance it looked a bit like ground hamburger tossed into a pita bun, but the taste was nothing short of heaven. The ground leg of lamb offset the bits of eggplant, the one thing I wished it had more of, perfectly. The pita was warm but not hot, and the feta cheese added just the right amount of bite to the plate. It was another dish that I would force myself to eat slowly so I could savor each bite.
I also took a bite of my fiancé’s dish. She ordered the Chicken Aioli (Diced chicken breast tossed with fresh pesto sauce and sun-dried tomatoes. Wrapped in Pita bread with spring mix. Served with garlic Aioli sauce.). I'm really not a big fan of sun dried tomatoes, but I love garlic, and the aioli sauce was incredibly garlicy, which I loved. The first time we'd gone there I'd commented that the chicken was cooked perfectly, but this time around it hovered a few degrees closer to overcooked. Still it all came together nicely, and I let her finish it off, showing just how much she liked it as she usually keeps the leftovers for work the next day.
Overall everything was delicious, and not too expensive. The staff is super friendly, and the atmosphere peaceful and relaxing. One of the best lunches I've had in a long time. If you like Greek food or even just good food, you need to check this place out.
1846 Garnet Ave.
San Diego, CA 92109