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Here’s what’s happening with Tacoma’s Greek Festival and where to find baklava

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About this time every October, a volunteer army piles into St. Nicholas Greek Orthodox Church in Tacoma, armed with buckets of tzatziki, hundreds of pounds of gyro meat, 11,000 wedges of baklava, and sturdy shoes. 

The three-day eating event is Tacoma’s favorite food festival. And, sadly, it’s canceled this year.

But I have two things to tell you: 

1) There’s still a way you can help the church and its programs and;

2) My favorite part of the festival is the pastries, so I’ve assembled a DIY tour of baklava in the area to tide you over until the next Greek Festival. 

The tokens at the 2019 Greek Festival.

First, let’s get to the helping part. “We’re sad about cancelling the festival. We (especially me) tried to hang on and speculatively keep the event alive as long as we could. We didn’t give up until early July,” said event chairperson Bill Samaras.

“We even purchased all of the non-perishable ingredients for baklava baking as well as the boxes and other containers. In the end, we just couldn’t guarantee enough safety for the guests, parishioners, and the volunteers. We have many especially vulnerable parishioners that shouldn’t be in contact with the public at large,” said Samaras. 

“The dancers are sad, the summer baking parties aren’t happening, and the entire Festival machine has stopped dead,” said Samaras last month.

A gyro sandwich we attacked at the 2019 Tacoma Greek Festival.

HERE’S HOW YOU CAN HELP 

Humble church members won’t brag about how much it donates to the community through its Greek Festival, but it’s substantial. I have no problem bragging about the good work the church does in this community. So let me just say this: Please consider taking the amount you would have spent on the festival and give it to the church as a donation.

Every year, a different organization benefits from a contribution from festival proceeds. The church also used the funds to complete major reconstruction projects, including amazing iconography painted onto the church’s 35-feet dome 10 years ago.

baklava
Baklava at the 2019 Tacoma Greek Festival.

“For many years, the Greek Festival allowed St. Nicholas to survive. Luckily, with good fiscal planning during the past decade, the church is able to continue without this year’s festival. We have a major reconstruction project occurring in 2021 to tear down and reconstruct the church entrance (called the Narthex). Those expenses have ballooned and will be the single biggest expense in the history of St. Nicholas. We’re OK, St. Nicholas will survive,” said Samaras.

But if you do want to help the church with that project and to help support its programs and other organizations it supports through contributions, you can help here: https://stnicholastacoma.org/donate

Added Samaras, We’d like to send “a big thank you to the community from St. Nicholas for supporting the Tacoma Greek Festival for the past 58 years.” 

baklava
A grouping of baklava.

AND NOW FOR SOME GREEK PASTRIES

My favorite part of the Greek Festival has always been the pastry counter on the left side of the pop-up festival tent. There, diners can select from a vast array of Greek pastries, including baklava, melomakarona, kourambiethes, galaktoboureko, rolled kataifi, paximathia, koulourakia and kataifi ekmek.

Ok, so I’ve spent 15 years of my dining career here looking for all kinds of Greek pastries in Tacoma. The only one I’ve found is baklava, which is widely available here and is a pastry built with layer after layer of phyllo dough slathered in butter, layered with spiced nuts and soaked in a delicious honey syrup. It’s a sticky treat that crackles at first bite and I love it. 

Here are my top 5 spots for baklava, plus a few more at the end you can also try. Fun tip: One of these places also serves galaktoboureko! 

baklava
A wedge of baklava from Mediterranean Palace.

MEDITERRANEAN PALACE 

You can detect the orange blossom in Ammar Mannaa’s baklava before you even bite into the honey-soaked treats from Tacoma’s Mediterranean Palace. It’s his secret weapon in creating the best walnut baklava in Tacoma, that orange blossom water. Cut into squares, rather than triangles, his baklava feels so much more substantial at first bite. Mannaa layers his baklava with walnuts and a honey syrup that he says is just a tiny less sweet than the competition. Find them at the Freighthouse Square restaurant inside the food court; or at neighboring Dome District restaurant, Sluggo Brewing.  $3.50.

Mediterranean Palace: 409 E. 26th St., Tacoma; 253-272-1047 

Sluggo Brewing: 430 E. 25th St., Tacoma; 253-272-0845

MARVEL BAY CAFE 

Baklava made with Nutella? Sign me up. This is gooey, rich baklava built for eating slowly. It’s not always available, so call ahead to ask (weekends are your best shot). Marvel Bakery should be a go-to on your pastry list. The cafe has a steamtable full of European and American hot deli items, but it also has an extensive selection of pastries that includes their famous Nutella baklava, but also croissants, scones and cookies. Did I mention the fresh crepes? Next door is a sibling Eastern European grocery store with a bakery counter offering up freshly-baked or fried piroshki and a broad selection of baked goods. 

Marvel Bay Cafe: 301 133rd St. S., Tacoma; 253-267-5159; https://marvelbaycafe.com/

galaktoboureko
Galaktoboureko from Giorgio’s in downtown Puyallup.

GIORGIO’S GREEK CAFE 

With a heavy waft of cinnamon, this sturdy textured walnut baklava is thick with honey syrup, as well as beautifully spiced. The plain version is great, but they also have a chocolate-dipped version that’s incredible. In the restaurant, they’ll warm it up for you, but I prefer mine at room temperature so I can enjoy the texture of that chocolate coating. Get take-out from the restaurant, and when you get home, leave the baklava at room temperature for an hour and enjoy. They also have galaktoboureko, the lemony custard-like pastry that’s the same style as the creamy-textured pastry served at Tacoma’s Greek Festival. $4.95 to $5.45. 

Giorgio’s Greek Cafe: 328 S. Meridian, Puyallup; 253-200-2333; https://www.giorgiosgreekcafe.com/

chocolate baklava
Chocolate baklava from Giorgio’s in downtown Puyallup. The recipe at It’s Greek To Me descends from the same family recipe.

IT’S GREEK TO ME

If the versions at Tacoma’s It’s Greek To Me remind you of the versions at Giorgio’s, that’s because the recipes descend from the same place. Erin Wick, who owns It’s Greek to Me with husband Jim Wick, said the recipe came from the Dimakis family, former business partners who now run Giorgio’s Greek Cafe in Puyallup (see above). “Jim remembers Johnnie (Dimakis) talking to Johnnie’s mom about the chocolate. She never left Thessaloniki, so he would call her whenever they needed a recipe. He remembers the chocolate (dipped baklava) as a child growing up in Greece.” $2.99 to $3.99. 

It’s Greek To Me: 1702 Sixth Ave., 253-272-1375; https://www.itsgreektomerestaurant.com

baklava
A wedge of baklava from Gyro Zone.

GYRO ZONE

This University Place gyro restaurant – with the area’s best fried cauliflower sandwich and shawarma – offers two kinds of baklava. One is rolled and drizzled with chocolate. The other is a triangle of phyllo layered with spiced walnuts and a copious amount of sticky honey syrup holding it all together. This one is uber sugary, so make this your spot if you’ve got a wicked sweet tooth. $2.74. 

Gyro Zone: 7510 40th St. W., University Place; 253-267-1616

baklava
Rolled baklava with a drizzle of chocolate from Gyro Zone.

WANT MORE? TRY THESE, TOO

D’lara Mediterranean Grill: 9441 192nd Ave. E., Bonney Lake; 253-750-4693; http://www.laramediterraneangrill.com/menulist.html

Gyro Bites: 6409 Sixth Ave., Tacoma, 253-212-2447 

Mediterreanean Gyro Grill: 3555 Market Pl W., University Place; 253-314-5122; http://mediterraneangyrogrill.com/

Ikonos: 4920 Point Fosdick Drive NW, Gig Harbor; 253-858-7070; https://www.ikonosrealgreek.com/

And let’s just say that I hope to do this to a table in the dining tent next year:

If you’re doing it right, this is what it will look like when you’re done dining at the Tacoma Greek Festival. Here’s my table from the 2019 festival!

sausage
A selection of sausages at the rear deli counter at Hess Bakery & Deli in Lakewood.

DIY OKTOBERFEST: HERE’S WHAT TO DO

Yes, it’s true. Oktoberfest Northwest normally would be happening now, but the region’s largest pop-up beer hall is on hiatus this year, along with the Greek Festival. But here’s how you can do your own Oktoberfest tour! Read my long list of places to get German eats and beer.

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