Walking down Pallados Street, located a few steps away from the Athens Central Food Market, is like a treasure hunt, one where the riches are the old-time kitchenware stores where past generations of Athenians used to shop for their cutlery and crystal, be it glasses, vases or chandeliers. As the years went by, the shops began adding more variety to their stock, mostly kitchen equipment and home goods. But as they grew bloated with objects charming and tacky, delicate and bulky, useful and meaningless, these shops also began to dwindle in number. Few survive among the bars and eateries that now line the street.
We first stumbled upon tiny Tsiknaboom while on the hunt for these bastions of old Athens. The restaurant is across the street from Pasialis, a 100-year-old family run store whose aisles are bursting with objects to be discovered. We chuckled a bit at the name: “Tsikna” in Greek is a word to describe the aroma of charred meat, to which the owner attached a comic book-like “boom.” The old-school Disney character Peg Leg Pete on the menu further solidifies that these guys are out to have fun.
Looking on the lighter side of things was likely more help than hindrance: George Kostakis opened Tsiknaboom in June 2015, right during the turmoil of the Greek economic crisis. Despite these tough times, George, who comes from the nearby island of Evoia and has been living with his wife and kid in Athens for about seven years now, has not just survived but also thrived.
While the restaurant’s cheeky name and logo attract passersby, its smoking charcoal grill is what draws people in. Behind a bar and adjacent to a narrow counter-kitchen, the grill takes up a good portion of the little eatery. It’s topped with Greek-style long metal skewers, on which chunks of seasoned meat are slowly roasted – hence all the smoke.
A well-made kontosouvli has to be crispy on the outside and soft and juicy on the inside
George specializes in kontosouvli, a beloved dish made of chunks of meat – traditionally pork – simply seasoned with salt, pepper and herbs like oregano and thyme, spit-roasted over a charcoal grill. A well-made kontosouvli has to be crispy on the outside and soft and juicy on the inside. You can think of it as an extra large souvlaki, although kontosouvli is a much less ubiquitous presence in the Athenian street food scene.
At Tsiknaboom you’ll get to choose between three kinds of kontosouvli – all handmade by George. There’s a classic pork version, lamb kontosouvli and rooster kontosouvli, all deliciously indulging. You can enjoy them either wrapped in grilled pita bread along with tomato and onion slices, pickled cabbage and George’s handmade yogurt-mustard sauce or as a portion served on a plate with a jacket (or baked) potato and salad.
Other menu items include biftekia (grilled minced beef patties), sausage, pork cutlets and vegetarian versions of souvlaki: grilled halloumi cheese wrapped in pita bread along with tomato and yogurt-mustard sauce or grilled veggies, usually mushroom and zucchini, wrapped in pita bread along with pickled cabbage, onion, tomato and a balsamic-yogurt sauce.
One of the highlights of this place is the jacket potato they do in place of the usual fries. The potatoes are cooked on the charcoals, which gives them an amazing smoky flavor, and are topped with ingredients of your choice. We like chopped tomatoes and onions mixed with a yogurt sauce and topped with pickled cabbage. The latter is George’s favorite ingredient and is the perfect accompaniment to his meat dishes. As he says, “It’s the ideal pairing for grilled meat because it aids digestion.”
Apart from serving delicious street food in downtown Athens, what makes this place so special is that George clearly puts love into what he does. Watch as he prepares your order himself and you’ll see what we mean. Everything here is handmade, including his incredibly popular sauces. Being just a breath away from the Central Athens Food Market is an advantage, of course. George goes every morning to the market himself to shop – fresh ingredients are the rule here. Then he goes straight back to the shop to prepare everything. By 1 p.m. at the latest, his kontosouvli is ready and he begins serving customers, who either stand inside or sit at one of the few tables on the street.
When all the daily goodies are gone, which usually happens around 9 p.m., George closes down his little place and heads back home to his family, to wake up the next day and do it all again at his tiny shop, the new treasure trove on Pallados Street.