A traditional Greek menu — fresh fruits, fish, legumes, nuts, poultry, vegetables, whole grains, lean meat, and red wine — might well be the original Mediterranean Diet. And nutritionists suggest that the recent resurgence in popularity of Greek cuisine is tied to Americans’ enduring search for healthy food options.
But patrons of Tucson’s Pappoule's restaurant view any health benefits of its Greek food as merely a bonus. They say that they return for the taste.
“It’s nice to know this food’s good for me,” a regular Pappoule's patron said over lunch early this week, “but I come here all the time because it’s just so darn good.”
Michael Cotsones, Pappoule's owner, smiled when he was told of the customer’s remark. “If our food wasn’t delicious and affordable, we couldn’t stay open,” he said, gesturing to the sizable lunchtime crowd in the restaurant’s spacious, sunny main room. “Quality ingredients and flavor: that’s what we’re all about.”
The restaurant’s head chef, Jose Suarez, nodded and said that, despite his own Mexican-American roots, “I don’t think there is much in the world more delicious than authentic Greek food.”
“We just returned from Greece,” a resident of Casa Grande and frequent diner volunteered as she looked up from a slice of Moussaka, “and the food [at Pappoule's] is the real deal.” Her husband agreed and joked that the couple could have saved money by “skipping that trip and just eating here.”
Pappoule's lunchtime crowd, much of it drawn from nearby office parks and medical facilities, morphs daily into afternoon snack-time, which soon becomes early supper time for retirees and families with children, followed, not long after, by a steady stream of evening customers ordering Greek beer and wine with their dinners.
Cotsones’ parents, second generation Greeks, moved to Tucson from Chicago in the late 1970s, opening their first Pappoule's restaurant in the Tucson Mall food court in 1982.
Mike inherited the business (“still using my mother’s original Greek recipes”) and subsequently opened restaurants at several other area locations.
He and his wife, Bea, eventually consolidated all operations at the current space on the northwest corner of the Foothills Mall: North La Cholla Boulevard at West Ina Road.
Customers arriving at Pappoule's are greeted by a friendly hostess at a counter, where they order and pay for food, move to tables in the bright, airy room, and are promptly served by a contingent of experienced, helpful wait staff.
An expansive outdoor patio offers further, comfortable seating — complete with a panoramic view of the Catalina mountain range.
Pappoule's has remained a family affair. Both Michael and Bea Cotsones are on site, and their son, Chris, works there on weekends. Most of the staff — starting with chef Suarez, a 22-year Pappoule's veteran — has been with the Cotsones for years.
Asked how he has retained staff in a business perpetually plagued by employee turnover, Michael Cotsones replied, without pause, “We treat everyone well. Customers, staff, vendors. Everyone. It’s a key to our long-term success.”
That and luscious food. Starting with gyros. Lots and lots of gyros: gyros sandwiches, gyros platters, and overflowing gyros dinner plates.
In all, Cotsones said, gyros “probably account for 40% of our business.” Pappoule's gyros, thinly sliced beef and lamb, are mouth-watering visual wonders, and tender and juicy enough to melt on the tongue.
The restaurant typically serves 200-pounds of gyro meat each day. And the secret to its popularity? “The very highest quality meat,” Cotsones answered.
“We import it from Chicago,” he said in a whisper as if disclosing proprietary information. “And we prepare and serve dozens of gyro loafs each week.”
On cue, Suarez delivered to the table the Pappoule's Special Gyros Dinner Plate — a remarkably generous portion of gyro meat plus a Greek salad, rice pilaf, and pita bread.
On the side was a small cup of expertly balanced, tangy Greek Tzatziki Sauce — a mixture of yogurt, cucumber, vinegar, garlic, and olive oil, with a just touch of fresh dill. The exact ingredient proportions? Chef Suarez smiled but did not divulge.
If there was a designated signature dish at Pappoule's, “this is it,” said Cotsones proudly as he gestured to the bountiful Gyro Dinner Plate. “Many customers return time and time again just to order this entrée.”
And no wonder. The portions of flavorful food are as abundant as the cost is modest – $12 for the Dinner Plate. ($11 for the slightly smaller Gyro platter, or $8 for Pappoule's Famous Gyro Sandwich.)
Yet, to limit a summary of the array of scrumptious Pappoule's food options to gyros would constitute a grave injustice to the restaurant’s owners, staff, and its legions of devoted customers.
Guests will be well rewarded, for example, when ordering the Lamb Chops, a restaurant specialty.
Lightly grilled — not overly seared, which can result in dry and chewy meat — these chops are marinated in sauces suggesting a recipe from Greek food gods. The result is a rich, savory entrée that may be unequaled anywhere west of Athens.
Another delightful discovery is Pappoule's exquisite Pastitsio. Call it a casserole or a Greek version of lasagne: the moniker is unimportant, the taste is divine.
Made with layers of pasta, a mild but flavorful meat sauce, creamy Bechamel (white sauce prepared with precise proportions of milk, flour, and olive oil), it is baked to a golden brown. Plato, that most discerning Greek, would, no doubt, declare this Pastitsio a work of culinary art.
The array of Pappoule's selections is extensive — from Grilled Chicken Wings (also bathed in lightly spiced Tzatziki sauce), Greek Salad (with a special house dressing from a recipe Suarez may keep in a bank safe), traditional Dolmas (fresh grape leaves with a splendidly spiced rice, herb, and onion stuffing), to a robustly marinated and chargrilled Portobello Mushroom dish, served either on a platter with salad or in a sandwich.
All of this, plus Chicken Salad that one patron said he has been ordering weekly for more than a decade.
“I live way over on the east side of town,” he said, “and this chicken salad is worth the drive. My wife knows her chicken salad, and she says it’s the best she’s ever eaten.”
And no connoisseur of fine food would dare overlook Pappoule's ethereal Greek desserts, which include the ever popular Baklava (layers of light, baked phyllo dough, stacked with honey and nuts — sweet, but not overwhelmingly sweet) and an equally delicious Galatobouriko (phyllo layered with butter and a creamy custard, topped with a light honey syrup).
These desserts, alone, should provoke many returns to Pappoule's.
To assure satisfaction for customers’ entire families, the Cotsones have even included menu items for “I-just-want-a-hamburger” kids: Chicken Tenders with French Fries, Onion Rings, Sweet Potato Fries, and, of course, all-American burgers.
And this all barely scratches the surface of a menu as layered as a dish of Spanakopita (spinach and feta cheese overlaid with light phyllo dough).
For the particularly health conscious, Pappoule's has an array of homemade vegetarian and vegan options as heart-pleasing as they are scrumptious: half-a-dozen salad options, Falafel, the aforementioned Portabella Mushrooms, plus Tilapia — so perfectly seasoned and grilled that it will please the most discriminating fish lover.
While Pappoule's is both family- and health-friendly, its patrons seem most pleased that it is palate-pleasing. Possibly the best of both worlds: nutritious with an extra-large side of absolutely delectable.
Pappoule's is open from 11 a.m. - 8 p.m. on Sundays and from 11 a.m. - 9 p.m. Monday through Saturday.
Pappoule's is located at 7475 N. La Cholla Blvd. For more information, visit pappoules.com.