Cafe Athena1846 Garnet Ave. Pacific Beach858-274-1140It's been all kinds of hot lately. Sticky hot. The sort of hot that makes you want to cling to your air conditioner, submerge yourself in water or skip eating altogether—except this is me we're talking about here, and the chances of that happening are about as likely as the Padres going to the World Series this year. That's why my defense against ever-rising temperatures is to go vegetarian. It's not a rigid practice—I still eat some meat in the summer (I can't deny the sizzle of a steak on a barbecue or a really good hamburger), but during warmer months, the kind of food I crave is lighter than usual: cold soups, crisp salads, marinated vegetables—those dishes just sound better than a lethargy-inducing plate of meat that'll make me feel even more woozy and couch-bound.
I've noticed that my trips to Café Athena increase in frequency starting around mid-June and continuing on through September. I don't always eat-in; sometimes I'll pick up takeout if I'm too tired, or too hot, to cook.
The restaurant is hidden behind an Asian buffet place, in a wood-shingled labyrinth of shops and parking lots that dominate a good two blocks of Garnet Avenue, and if I'm planning on sitting down for a meal, I make sure to go in the evening or on weekend days, when most of the surrounding stores have closed and there's less foot and car traffic. The interior of the café is bigger than it looks from the outside, with three airy white-walled dining rooms filled with paintings of Greek islands and Grecian decorations. On sweltering days, it's nice to sit at one of the few patio tables on the front walkway, shaded by tall trees.
I can count on one hand the places in Pacific Beach where I really, truly, love to eat, and Café Athena makes the cut. The menu has a nice variety of chilled or room-temperature appetizers that are great to snack on or make a meal out of. Baskets of pita bread are provided for dipping into tangy yogurt tzatziki and sesame-scented, roasted eggplant baba ghannuj or spread with skordalia, a garlicky potato-based spread. The skordalia is also served alongside an appetizer of peppery fried calamari.
I like both of Café Athena's versions of grape leaves, one stuffed with ground beef and rice, the other meat-free. And, while not exactly light, I order saganaki even in summer, since I still take delight in seeing the rectangle of firm sheep's-milk cheese get doused with brandy and set aflame. Eating the salty, crusty, melted cheese that results is good fun, too.
For lunch, I ping-pong between two favorite pita-wrapped sandwiches, either the vegetarian option filled with marinated and roasted eggplant, zucchini and red peppers or the super tasty papoutsakia—eggplant rolled around a savory mixture of ground lamb, onions and pine nuts and topped with tomato sauce, fresh basil and creamy Feta. Sometimes I'll add a cup of delicious lentil soup.
The spanakopita, a warm triangle of buttery filo pastry layers encasing an eggy spinach, feta and onion mixture, is filling enough for a light meal. The falafel here isn't amazing (hit up Mama's Lebanese in North Park for the be-all, end-all of falafel), and neither are the gyros, so if I'm up for a meat dish, I get the moussaka, a Greek classic of ground lamb layered with eggplant, zucchini, tomato, pine nuts and baked with a topping of creamy Bechamel-like sauce. The huge serving, enough for two people, comes with a pile of rice pilaf, but I like to order the spanaki lemonato on the side. The chopped spinach cooked with garlic and olive oil, then chilled and served with lemon wedges, is a terrifically refreshing dish.
If vegetarians want something equally hearty as the moussaka, there's the café's version of pastitsio, which is layered with spinach, penne pasta, pesto sauce, cheese and topped with the cream sauce. And if you're plagued by food indecision, there are various appetizer and entrée sampler plates to choose from.
Café Athena isn't fancy, but the flavors of the food are simple, fresh and light, and sometimes that's exactly what I'm looking for in the thick of summer. Eating there may not be quite like a trip to the Greek Isles, but it'll do in a pinch.