Marek Warszawski

It took me 20 years to attend the Fresno Greek Fest. Don’t make the same mistake

A guide to Fresno Greek Fest’s tasty food

Alenny Mellis shows you how Greek food is made and pronounced at the Outdoor Mega Booth Grill at the Fresno Greek Fest on Sunday, August 28, 2016 at St. George Greek Orthodox Church in Fresno.
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Alenny Mellis shows you how Greek food is made and pronounced at the Outdoor Mega Booth Grill at the Fresno Greek Fest on Sunday, August 28, 2016 at St. George Greek Orthodox Church in Fresno.

I lived here for 20 years before attending my first Fresno Greek Fest.

Talk about poor judgment. Hope my taste buds will find it in their hearts to forgive me.

You’ve probably heard about Fresno Greek Fest, which celebrates its 59th year this Friday, Saturday and Sunday at the St. George Greek Orthodox Church.

In short, the food is sensational. (It is.) There are oodles and oodles of people. (There are.) And everyone has a great time. (They do.)

Knowing all these things, I still wasn’t prepared for the sights, sounds and gastronomic sensations that greeted me last August. The first objective is finding a place to park. Organizers expect a turnout of more than 25,000 for the three-day festival, way more traffic than the central Fresno neighborhood near First and Clinton was designed to handle.

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So, yes, you’ll probably have to find space on a residential street and hoof a few blocks. (Consider it a small down payment for all the calories you’re about to consume.) Or park at the nearby Veterans Affairs Medical Center and take the free shuttle.

When arriving at St. George Greek Orthodox Church, you may be tempted to take a look around or check out the church’s ornate stained-glass windows. My advice: There’s plenty of time for that later. First, get in line for food.

Being a newbie, I got in the first line I saw. Boy, was it long. In fact, it felt like the Space Mountain of food lines stretching back and forth across the courtyard.

Being someone who hates standing in line, I swallowed hard and gritted my teeth. But guess what? The line moved rather swiftly. It took maybe 15 or 20 minutes before I was inside the dining hall grabbing a tray.

Lamb shank? Of course. Rice pilaf? You betcha. Dolmas? Absolutely. Spanakopita? (A spinach and feta cheese “pie” cooked in crispy layers of phyllo dough.) Sure. Pastitsio? (A baked pasta dish with ground meat and béchamel sauce.) Why not?

Carrying my heaping plate outside, I was shocked to discover I had been in the “express” line. There was another, longer line directly behind it featuring even more culinary offerings. There was souvlaki (grilled lamb, pork or chicken on a stick), gyro sandwiches (pronounced YEE-ro), fried calamari, lamb medallions and halloumi, a Greek fried cheese.

Needless to say, I devoured the food on my plate and went back for Round 2. Every dish was homemade and delicious.

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Luis Leyva, left, and Adrian Rivera, both of Fresno, select dishes in the Outdoor Mega Booth Grill at the 2016 Greek Fest. This year’s festival runs Friday, Aug. 23, through Sunday, Aug. 25, at St. George Greek Orthodox Church. SILVIA FLORES sflores@fresnobee.com

There was a separate area for pastries – baklava and melomakarona (oil-based honey and walnut cookies) are personal favorites – but I couldn’t stomach any more lines. Nor could my stomach stomach another morsel.

How much food is consumed at Fresno Greek Fest? Last year alone organizers went through more than 1,600 pounds of butter, 600 pounds of ground beef, 500 pounds of rice and 1,000 pounds of feta cheese and yogurt while cooking up more than 8,000 dolmas and 1,200 pans of baklava.

No, they aren’t messing around.

Feeling more stuffed than a turducken, it was a good time to check out the rest of what the festival had to offer including the church with saints painted on the ceiling and dozens of vendors.

Right about then, while standing near the barbecue area, someone called out my name. I looked over and saw Andreas Borgeas, the California State Senator who at the time was still a Fresno County Supervisor.

Borgeas, who is of Greek descent, was tending to several large barbecues covered with legs of lamb. He wore an apron and a big smile. While Borgeas and I have disagreed at times, especially over the San Joaquin River Parkway, we are in lockstep when it comes to lamb.

I’m a little sheepish about admitting this, but lamb (as well as Borgeas’ barbecue skill) was the main reason I voted for him.

JRW GREEK FEST 3
Orestis Koletsos of Hohlax Trio plays the bouzouki, a traditional Greek instrument, during the 57th Fresno Greek Fest, Sunday afternoon, Aug. 27, 2017. JOHN WALKER jwalker@fresnobee.com

You know what pairs well with Greek food? Greek music and dancing. At the first sound of a bouzouki (a string instrument in the lute family), childhood memories of weddings and parties held by my Greek godfather came flooding back.

I especially enjoyed the zeibekiko, a dramatic, improvised dance traditionally performed by men. Some of them including Dimitri Arabatzis, the festival’s featured dancer, cavort around dramatically while balancing a glass of wine on their heads … upside down.

Someway, somehow, they manage not to spill.

Held every year on the last weekend of August since 1959, Fresno Greek Fest is more than a celebration of Greek and Mediterranean culture. Proceeds benefit a variety of local charities including a local food pantry, children with cancer and a prison ministry.

But most of all, go for the delicious food. And don’t wait till you’ve been here two decades, like some dummy you know.

Fresno Greek Fest

Marek Warszawski writes opinion columns on news, politics, sports and quality of life issues for The Fresno Bee, where he has worked since 1998. He is a Bay Area native, a UC Davis graduate and lifelong Sierra frolicker. He welcomes discourse with readers but does not suffer fools nor trolls.
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