Detour Before Dark: Enjoying Gordian knots at Yianni’s Greek Diner
By Scott Thomas Anderson — originally published in the Press Tribune
The word “Opa” — energizing in its effect, nebulous in its origin, for centuries Greeks have appealed to the muses of wine and song by yelling “Opa!” to escape life’s pressures: Whether sounding from Athenian parties or echoing from dim dining rooms in Jersey, Opa’s invocation forms a carousing lightning bolt to hurl back at the gods of stress, until those forces of anxiety evaporate into a drink-fueled soiree of fast dancing and physical relief.
Around California’s capital, the rarely talked about, scarcely written about hinterland of Carmichael is where “Opa” is most often proclaimed. Exploring the phenomenon means stepping into Yianni’s Greek Diner, a half-Hellenistic hideaway where older Greek and Eastern Europeans drink side by side with young, tattooed millennials, all crying “Opa!” over skewers of meat, keyboard-crazed belly dancing and flames engulfing molten plates of cheese.
The work week is over for Sacramento journalist Raheem F. Hosseini, who turns off a nondescript section of Fair Oaks Boulevard to pull in front of what looks like a misplaced seaside bar. He strolls by a barren lot before hitting the door of Yainni’s Greek Diner. Inside, an upside-down armada of wine glasses dangles above the oak bar, enveloped in an artificial apricot glow resembling a Mediterranean sunset. A friend is waiting at a corner table, along with a pita plate filled with Tzatziki, Fiery Feta, Skordalia and hummus. The Skordalia is a moist minced garlic mash, yellowed and cut with olive oil, while the Fiery Feta hits the tongue with a rich sapor under a sweet citrus burn. People at nearby tables are digging into the hummus, balancing its thick mix of sour notes and lemon touches with glasses of beer or wine.
Greek musician Timos Zachariou unpacks his bulky keyboard behind Hosseini’s table. Zachariou is a legend in this neighborhood. He’s performed all over the Peloponnese, as well as for celebrated dignitaries across the U.S. It’s not uncommon for the steely-haired jokester to challenge patrons to come up with a song request he can’t bang out. With bygone Greek ballads or the hits of Frank Sinatra, Zachariou can shift the room’s atmosphere from a Vegas lounge to a manic rooftop dance party — and he can do it in seconds. The ambiance of Yainni’s is perfect for the music master’s stylings, with its cozy white walls and creamy bronze trim dotted in dripping vintage string-lights. To Zachariou’s back, porcelain Greek dolls watch from wood ledges near a steel relief of a ship sailing the Aegean. To his side is a Classical painting of Greek deities touching hands.
Another well known face at the restaurant is Vasilis, a Greek-American who’s a longtime waiter and customer favorite. Beyond explaining every detail of Yianni’s cuisine, Vasilis can also be found in the parking lot every other Friday night, roasting a full lamb’s body on a spit over flames.
“What do you want to drink, my friend?” Vasilis asks.
“Do you have any Greek beer besides Mythos?” Hosseini inquires.
“Yeah, we’ve got Septem,” Vasilis says. “It’s a Pilsner that’s actually made by a guy who has a winery in Evia, in Greece, who decided he wanted to branch out and have a microbrewery too. It’s popular.”
Hosseini doesn’t hesitate.
Listening to the conversation, Zachariou stops unwinding his microphone chord.
“Hey, you look Greek!” he calls over to Hosseini. “You Greek?”
“No, but my dad is Persian,” the reporter answers.
“Ah, ok,” Zachariou replies with a smile. “Well, just south of us!”
The cagey musician is soon playing and, in the words of Billy Joel, “the regular crowd shuffles in.” Yainni’s Greek Diner is owned by Marko and Rania Tzikas. The couple has made sure their menu incorporates staples that travelers would find on Athens’ Plaka or under the candlelit overhangs of its old Agora. Such dishes include Yianni’s take on lamb shank, prepared in roasted garlic, rosemary and oregano sauce. Lamb is common throughout the area’s Greek kitchens, but at Yainni’s the meat flakes off the bone with a touch and then hits the pallet in subtle flavors mustered by its brown, butter-nuanced drippings. Morsels of meat directly from the leg offer a bloom in their succulent, fatty centrifuges.
Another dish the kitchen crew at Yianni’s has mastered is Souvlakia chicken, which they present with an authentic nod to the Greek islands, fiercely flame-licked yet still tender enough to offer a wide array of salt-touch accents and hues of thyme.
Tonight, Vasilis is dropping one of the restaurant’s modern offerings on a number of tables: Known as the Marko Burger, this half-pound hybrid of seasoned beef and ground lamb is served as a soft cluster of juiciness augmented by Kaseri cheese and Sriracha mayo. It’s Grecian bliss for carnivores.
By mid-evening, Vasilis finds a moment to grab the microphone and join Zachariou in a duet, urging the crowd into a raucous Greek dancing song. The entire room claps and smiles as the waiter belts out the Old World lyrics. A professional belly dancer soon emerges from a back room, clad in her jingling coin-bra and an ornate Turkish hip scarf. Zachariou plays festive music as the dancer shimmies, twists and lifts through the tables of clapping people. Her artful performance makes the crowd grow louder and louder. When she vanishes to the back again, a handful of regulars are ready to join Zachariou by singing along with the tunes they know.
“Hey,” Zachariou calls to Hosseini, pointing down to his keyboard. “I have a Farsi song! Get up, sing!”
“Oh, I can’t,” the journalist tells him. “I only know a word or two.”
“Sing!” the musician cheers on.
“I’d ruin it,” Hosseini says. “I could only tell the people in this room a few things in Farsi. I think I could sternly order them all to sit down,” he pauses with a shrug, “and I could tell them they’re beautiful.”
A cook glides out of the kitchen, calling out “Opa!” before brightly igniting an out-thrust bowl of Saganaki. Piercing blue flames rise from the cauldron of Kasseri cheese and Metaxa brandy, reddening the wall with natural, flickering light. At some moments this aromatic dish has set off Yiannis’s smoke detectors; but on this night it just throws plumes of broiling cheese into the air under a singing crackle that fuses with the laughing, and the unstoppable music, and the voices of those who turn for an instant to cry back, “Opa!”
Raheem F. Hosseini is a Sacramento-based journalist who writes about underrepresented cultures and people living on the periphery. Hard-hitting in his approach and unapologetically literate, the newspaper vet recently spent an evening at Yainni’s Greek Diner discussing a host of issues and places, including the half-invisible suburb of Carmichael, the city in which this conversation took place and the root of his own education at Jesuit High School.
Scott: You just got back from the Mediterranean after spending time in Istanbul. As a writer, what stood out?
Raheem: For me, just how stacked the city is with buildings, cars and people. It feels like there is so little time to breathe, and when you do breathe, you breathe exhaust. Every part of it hums and brings you into its pulse, and you can get drunk on the stimuli — and you can get exhausted on it. I’ve been to huge American cities like New York and they don’t compare to the movement going on in Istanbul.
Scott: What is it like to be the only writer assigned to underrepresented cultures in this region?
Raheem: The job is to get to the people who literally and figuratively aren’t being heard. Every group around Sacramento with political pull already has a publicist, a big PR megaphone — they’re going to be fine. It’s the people on the margins who aren’t being heard who are interesting to me. Often times it’s the underrepresented who have to be the bravest to talk to a journalist, and who actually have the most to lose by speaking up. When you meet those kind of people in person, and hear their stories, usually they are braver than the people I interview who have political power — who could easily tell you the truth but typically don’t.
Scott: How wide is the spectrum of people living in this part of California?
Raheem: This area has huge, eclectic Middle Eastern communities. There are pockets of Eastern Europeans and there’s a large group of Persians in my orbit in Folsom. The region has some really great stories along those lines, like the Hmong, who have worked extremely hard to find their own political footing and represent themselves here on a broader level. This generally gets glossed over, but Sacramento is one of the most diverse cities in the nation, and with that comes real issues that need to be covered. It’s not just a touristy buzz word.
Scott: We’re sitting inside this really unique Greek hub in Carmichael. Why are cities like Carmichael so seemingly anonymous in the media?
Raheem: With the way things are in local media right now, some reporters like us are setting goals for ourselves that are in no way achievable. There’s no doubt there are communities in the area that aren’t being covered. Not their city councils or the planning commissions or their school boards. Carmichael, Citrus Heights and Antelope are places where — if you were just using newspaper coverage to create a map — would be regions that don’t exist. That is, unless something shocking happens, like a murder. And that’s too bad.