At the Roadster, burgers are no longer the only things on the menu
At 19, as a gregarious newlywed, Koula Gray sailed to America — and found herself in a jam.
“I didn’t know how to cook and the in-laws were coming for dinner,” she says. “In Greece, I never bothered. I had Mama. I was having too much fun running from the boys.”
Five decades later, she’s the Mama doing the cooking for her son’s Roadster Grill on Bissonnet in Bellaire.
Nick Semoudiaris bought the hamburger joint 18 months ago and expanded the menu with Greek dishes, such as a stellar moussaka.
The Roadster gets this favorite right, from its nearly greaseless eggplant, layered with flour-dredged fried potatoes and ground beef chuck, seasoned with herbs and wine, to its lush blanket of rich béchamel. To get a sun-kissed crust, Gray drizzles butter on top.
“Otherwise, it would crust too fast and burn,” she says. “But really, the secret of good moussaka is the meat. That’s where all the knowledge is. You need the right balance of ingredients and just enough allspice and nutmeg.”
In Greece, restaurants serve moussaka either with rice or potatoes, Gray says. At the Roadster, stewy roasted vegetables top plain rice, giving the entire plate a soul-satisfying meatiness.
“We call it tourlou or mixed vegetables. It could be whatever the homemaker had left to throw into the pan: potatoes, eggplants, zucchini, whatever.”
The crisp souvlaki salads seem to draw the most raves. Jo Fogg drives from Sugar Land several times a week for the chicken.
“I order the same thing,” she says. “The chicken is very tender, and the dressing is so good.” Here’s the secret: The flavorful chicken breast chunks marinate overnight — in store-bought Italian dressing.
But a zippy Greek vinaigrette dressing is made in-house with olive oil, balsamic vinegar, Greek oregano and a dash of fresh lemon juice.
“I have customers who drink that stuff,” Semoudiaris says. “They say I should bottle and sell it.”
The beef souvlaki is equally compelling. Before skewering and grilling the chunks, Semoudiaris lets the beef sit in a colander overnight. This creates a firmer cut. The beef is then marinated with oregano, garlic and olive oil.
The Roadster attracts vegetarians, too. The restaurant has several nonmeat platters, including a flaky spinach pie made with phyllo pastry and a refreshingly tart northern bean salad.
A personal favorite is the smoke-kissed grilled eggplant and zucchini, swaddled in thick, toasty pita bread with fresh tomatoes, onions and yogurt-cucumber sauce.
Their Greek-meatball recipe is from Gray’s mother. But the word “meatballs” is misleading. These tender patties, infused with oregano and mint, are oblong.
Gray enters the restaurant with a plate of walnut baklava; she prefers cooking at home.
“She’s the architect, and we’re the contractors,” Semoudiaris says. “She brings us the food, and we come in and finish it off.”
Gray learned to cook by consulting the ladies at her church.
“I was never shy about asking. I would ask the old ladies how to make this, how to make that,” Gray says. “I still do, especially now (that) I’m cooking commercially. It’s tricky, but I’m learning.”
Gray and her son had long wanted a restaurant when they bought the Roadster. They introduced Greek food one dish at a time.
“We started with the moussaka. People liked that, so we introduced the chicken souvlaki,” Semoudiaris recalls. “Now one-third of the Roadster’s menu is Greek.”
Business is bustling, and Gray can’t complain; even so, she wishes her son would change the restaurant’s name.
“I told him to change it to The Greek’s Roadster Grill. Am I wrong? But you know boys; they never listen to their mothers,” she says, throwing her hands up in the air.
“Anyway, Nicky did it his way, and it’s working out.”
Roadster Grill: 5210 Bissonnet at Bellaire Boulevard.
Hours: 11 a.m.-9 p.m. Mon-Fri, 11-8pm Sat-Sun
Credit cards: all major Call 713-432-1800 for more information.