In South Philadelphia, on South Street near the corner of fifth, you can find one of the cities greatest treasures. South Street Souvlaki is an ancient neighborhood restaurant which has witnessed the opening and closing of scores of other Philadelphia establishments. Tom Vasiliades, the owner of the restaurant, is an affable man with an admirable stern yet carefree (perhaps careless) “I’ll do it my way” attitude. The thing I respect the most about Tom and his restaurant, after his grilled octopus, is his willingness to put his foot down. In an era where children apparently do whatever they want, wherever they want, South Street Souvlaki’s menu actually states, “If you can’t control your children, please don’t patronize my restaurant.” Tom is in some ways reminiscent of Seinfeld’s Soup Nazi and I always feel lucky that he lets me eat there.
Another tell that the food at this restaurant speaks for itself and to hell with everyone if they don’t like it, is the fact that they did not take credit cards up until a few years ago. Up until the oughts, Tom was able to tell his customers “If you want to eat my food, you must pay cash.” The restaurant is remarkably affordable for the quality of the cuisine and the generous portions.
Many of the waitresses appear to have been at the restaurant since it opened, and like the décor downstairs, they haven’t changed a bit. Although they can be sweet under the right circumstances, you get the feeling that if you do the wrong thing they will throw you out the door and one suspects that they could really care less whether you came or not. The restaurant and its staff appear tired and in need of help from Ponce de Leon, but I’m certain I would be disappointed if anything changed at all.
When approaching South Street Souvlaki from the outside you’ll see pressed lamb roasting on vertical spit, waiting to be dismembered, little slice by little slice, married to pita, and drizzled with tzatzizki, a yogurt sauce, to become gyros. The restaurant is divided into two sides downstairs, the right half is a dining room with a bar and the left half is again divided into a combination open kitchen/take away place and dining entranceway, with busy cooks hustling to get orders out. As you enter to be seated, you pass by tray after tray of traditional Greek delicacies: hummus, dolmades (stuffed grape leaves), moussaka (eggplant and ground meat), skordalia (garlic dip), and spanikopita (spinach pie made with filo dough). There is also an upstairs that is used for private affairs and overflow on busy nights.
The menu includes all of the items you would expect from a Greek restaurant beginning with kalamata olives and feta cheese to shish kebob and ending with rice pudding and baklava, none of which will disappoint you. For spectacle, order the saganakiopa (say opa), a Greek cheese served on fire. Purists will respect the falafel, deep fried balls of chick pea dough, served in a pita a la the gyros. However, there are two items on the menu that everyone should have the honor to enjoy before they die. These items are so special that they make South Street Souvlaki legendary and one of my favorite restaurants of all time.
Tom’s Greek style shrimp is sautéed in white wine and butter with fresh tomatoes, onions, and garlic. It’s served with feta cheese over linguine. As an Italian, I thought I knew better than to serve cheese with seafood, it could ruin the best recipe. However, this preparation crushes my haughty prejudice; the salty feta seamlessly melds with the flavors of the tomatoes, onions, and garlic, highlighting the perfectly prepared shrimp. Although I always want to try other items on the menu, such as the imam baldi (sautéed onions and tomatoes stuffed in eggplant and baked), I can never resist ordering it.
South Street Souvlaki’s piece de resistance, the item that could not be gushed-over enough, is one of the restaurants simplest dishes: the grilled octopus. The tender baby octopus is charcoal broiled and marinated with olive oil and vinegar. Stunning in its minimalism, it is truly unequaled. For years my family members and I ordered grilled octopus everywhere we saw it on the menu, only to be disappointed. Although many restaurants make it well, none have come close to its smoky flawlessness. The tender meaty texture is seasoned perfectly every time and I am certain that the charcoal broiling is the key to its divinity. Even if you think you don’t like octopus, I urge you to go there and try it because to do otherwise is to deprive yourself of one of life’s greatest rewards.
I want to get in my car and go there right now.