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Papa Cristo's meat moussaka

Time 2 hours 45 minutes
Yields Serves 12 to 16
Papa Cristo's meat moussaka
(Marcus Yam / Los Angeles Times)
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For 68 years, Papa Cristo’s Greek restaurant and shop has helmed a dense stretch of Pico Boulevard in the Pico-Union neighborhood of Los Angeles. These days, the area is populated with carnicerias, dollar stores and — crucial to Papa Cristo’s history — St. Sophia Greek Orthodox Cathedral across the street. For decades, the ornate cathedral and shop shared a mostly Greek clientele; nowadays, Papa Cristo’s draws people from as many backgrounds as fill the city.

Inside Papa Cristo’s nearly block-wide storefront, amid the labyrinthine shingled roofs, shelves and barrel-topped display tables, you’ll find not only jars of marinated olives, bunches of fresh dried oregano, bricks of pistachio-flecked sesame halvah and many other Greek spices and staples, but also discs of Ethiopian injera, boxes of Italian panettone and 10-pound bags of Indian basmati rice.

“We’re like the United Nations,” second-generation Papa Cristo’s owner Chrys Chrys says of his customers. To the right of the rambling shop is an open taverna kitchen where lamb souvlakia or fresh calamari sizzle between flames on the large grill. Kitchen staff in white aprons take orders from the counter wedged in front. Past the kitchen, to the left of the eclectic shop, is a large dining room where people seat themselves and eat off paper plates amid wall hangings of iconic images of Greece — reproductions of ancient art and columned architecture as well as large photographs of contemporary chalky white stucco buildings and the bright blue Aegean Sea. There are also smaller black-and-white photographs of the Chrys family and the shop through the decades.

Chrys Chrys’ father, Sam, immigrated to the United States in 1914 and opened the shop selling imported Greek goods in 1948; in 1985, Chrys Chrys expanded the business by creating the kitchen and dining room as “wings,” as he calls them, to the shop. But other than that, Chrys did little to change the integrity of his father’s original storefront. A large painted portrait of Sam Chrys still hangs over the long row of refrigerated display cases.

What has changed is the community. Inspired by the desire to serve their clientele — and attract newcomers — Chrys and his daughter, Annie, who helps run the business, recently began offering free cooking classes, held once or twice a month in the large industrial kitchen behind the shop’s floor.

“We thought, ‘How can we create something for our community?’” Annie Chrys says, “Before, there were a lot more Greeks in the area — 20, 50 years ago — and they didn’t need to learn from us. But now our neighborhood has changed so much, some people may not know how to incorporate feta cheese or kalamata olives in their everyday cooking.”

Her father puts it a little different. From behind his white handlebar mustache, he says: “A good recipe is like a good old bottle of wine: You should share it with somebody. Don’t just sit there and drink it by yourself — that’s no fun.” The idea of charging for the classes seemed antithetical to how Chrys sees the world. “You go to a Greek’s house, the first thing you get is something stuck in your mouth and a drink in your hand.”

It’s no surprise, then, that classes begin with plastic mini tumblers of house red wine and small cubes of fresh imported Greek feta.

Chrys teaches the classes, which began in February, with the help of cooks Renata Romano and Apolonia Jimenez. Both have been working for the restaurant since coming to Los Angeles from Mexico nearly two decades ago; today they’re experts in Greek cuisine. As Jimenez quickly folds and tucks the phyllo dough around the spinach and cheese filling, Mark Yordon, manager of Papa Cristo’s and a Chrys family cousin, says: “It’s like folding the American flag.” It’s an apt metaphor.

Besides spanakopita, participants in the hour-long class might learn the secrets to moussaka, how to prepare a leg of lamb or the precise proportions of paper-thin phyllo dough to cinnamon-sweet nut filling for baklava. Items such as these, all made by hand on the premises, are also sold wholesale to national grocery stores and even cruise lines.

Some recipes shared during the classes have been in the Chrys family for generations. Others are slightly newer iterations that Chrys has created over the years. The kataifi rolls, for example, are his invention, with a layer of shredded phyllo dough wrapped around the standard whole sheet phyllo before being drizzled with a golden syrup flavored with curls of lemon rind and whole cinnamon sticks.

“The only way I can share is by teaching,” Chrys says. “I want to be a village restaurant.”

Papa Cristo’s: 2771 W. Pico Blvd., Los Angeles, (323) 737-2970, papacristos.com. For more information, email: papacristoscooking@gmail.com.

food@latimes.com

Meat sauce

1

Heat a large sauté pan over medium-high heat until hot. Add the olive oil, onions and ground meat, along with the seasoning. Cook, stirring frequently, until the meat is browned and cooked through, 10 to 12 minutes.

2

Stir in the tomato paste, crushed tomatoes, parsley, garlic and cinnamon. Cook, stirring frequently, for 2 to 3 minutes. Stir in the red wine, scraping any flavoring from the bottom of the pan. Cook the sauce for 10 to 12 minutes, stirring frequently. Remove from heat and skim any fat from the top of the sauce, discarding the fat. Taste and adjust the seasoning if desired. This makes a generous quart of meat sauce.

Béchamel sauce

1

In a large, heavy-bottom saucepan, melt the butter over medium heat. Whisk in the flour to form a roux, then continue cooking, stirring frequently, until the roux is a golden, sandy color, 4 to 6 minutes.

2

Increase the heat to medium-high and slowly whisk in the milk, a little at a time, until thickened by the roux. Bring to a very gentle simmer and cook, stirring frequently (watch that the sauce does not burn on the bottom of the pan), for 20 minutes to cook out the flour flavor. Remove from heat, season with the salt, and set aside. This makes a scant quart sauce.

Moussaka

1

In a steamer set over a pot of boiling water, steam the whole potatoes until tender (a knife or fork should easily pierce the flesh), 20 to 25 minutes. Set aside until cool enough to handle, then slice the potatoes, lengthwise, into 1/4-inch thick slices.

2

While the potatoes are steaming, slice the top and bottom off the eggplants, then slice the eggplants lengthwise into 1/4-inch thick slices.

3

Heat a grill or grill pan over medium-high heat until hot. Brush the eggplant slices with olive oil and sprinkle lightly with the seasoning, then grill just until the slices are softened and charred. Repeat until all of the slices are grilled. Set the eggplant aside.

4

Heat the oven to 350 degrees.

5

Assemble the moussaka: Brush a deep disposable lasagna pan (roughly 14- by 9 1/2- by 3-inches deep) with olive oil. Layer the bottom of the pan with 1/2 of the potato slices, overlapping them slightly if needed. Cover the potatoes with 1/2 of the eggplant slices, then spread over all of the meat sauce. Sprinkle over one half of the cheese, gently pressing the cheese into the meat mixture. Top the cheese with the remaining potatoes, forming a layer, then add the remaining eggplant. Spoon over the béchamel, smoothing it over the top. Finally, sprinkle over the remaining cheese, gently pressing the cheese into the béchamel sauce.

6

Place the pan on a baking sheet and bake until the moussaka is lightly browned on top, 1 hour to 1 hour and 15 minutes (ovens will vary — check after 40 minutes to see how the moussaka is progressing). Cool at least 15 minutes before serving.

Adapted from a recipe by Papa Cristo’s in Los Angeles. Greek seasoning, wine and Kefalotiri cheese are available at Papa Cristo’s, as well as at select Greek markets.