Nick Ballias was in a culinary conundrum. The owner of the acclaimed Wingcraft Kitchen & Beer Bar in Atlantic City was simply tired of the same takeout options on the mainland.
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“It seemed every time I turned around, there was another pizza or Italian concept opening, and it just got boring,” Ballias says. “How many nights can you eat pizza or pasta?”
So instead of driving to Atlantic City when his family gets hungry — or going to the same ol’, same ol’ takeout joint, Ballias did what any restaurant entrepreneur would do face with the same dilemma: He opened another restaurant. And it’s a good one.
“There was a point where my wife and I said, ‘Let’s do it!’ So we decided to do something different like I always do,” Ballias says.
The Original Greek — aka The OG — not only cures his desire for good, quality food on the go, but offers everyone in the vicinity of the Ocean Heights Plaza in Somers Point a truly unique, made-from-scratch concept that calls on Ballias’ Greek heritage while showing off some of the American influences that make Wingcraft the smashing success it is.
“I wanted to open a Greek concept even before Wingcraft,” Ballias says. “My mother was cooking all of these delicious meals my whole life. Looking back, we didn’t realize how spoiled we were with what we were eating. So why not share that with everyone?”
So Ballias, the smart restaurateur that he is, enlisted the help of his mother to come up with just about every recipe in The OG.
“I flew her up from Florida for a week just so she could show me how to make some of these dishes the proper way,” Ballias says. “She was happy to help, thank God! So it was a mother working with her son, handing all of these recipes down so I can show my team. It was great.”
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Anyone who knows Ballias — or ever dined at Wingcraft — knows he demands perfection. And those standards cross over to The OG despite its casual format.
“Everything is done from scratch, in house,” Ballias says. “We don’t compromise on ingredients or quality. Some of the cheeses I am getting are shipped from a Greek market in New York. All of the meats are coming from the great New York butcher Pat Lafrieda, from the cheesesteak meat to the antibiotic and hormone-free chicken tenders. Even the pork butt for the pork gyro is LaFrieda, and the ground meat for the pastitsio is the same short rib, brisket and beef meat from LaFrieda that we use in the burger. No shortcuts. You can’t replicate the flavor of that meat. When you start and end with the best ingredients, the best result is what you get.”
While you may be tempted to go to the familiar food, The OG particularly excels at the cuisine most places don’t have, particularly the Greek specialties.
Sure, you can get a gyro, and you should. Ballias says when you visit Greece, every gyro has french fries packed inside, so that’s what you will get in an OG gyro — whether you choose beef and lamb ($8.29) or pork ($9.29) — along with lettuce, tomato, onion and his mom’s to-die-for tzatziki sauce recipe.
“The yogurt we use for the tzatziki is just so special,” Ballias says. “It almost has the consistency of ice cream. And the flavor comes from the love of my mom’s recipe.”
Ballias says Americans are used to lam and beef gyros, but in Greece, the pork gyro is the standard.
“It’s really all you see there,” he says. “So we are doing it right. We take the pork butt from LaFrieda, make our own blend of spices and mix them with extra virgin olive oil and marinade it for 24 to 48 hours. We stack them in a particular way so it stays together. We then put it in the freezer to firm it up so we can slice it thin. It’s pretty awesome.”
Other pita sandwiches come exactly the same way such as chicken or Souvlaki ($8.29), filet mignon Souvlaki ($11.29), grilled veggie ($8.29), fried fish ($10.29) or Keftedes ($8.29), The OG’s great version of Greek meatballs.
But, in typical Ballias style, he has upped the ante with some signature items, including the white truffle gyro ($9.99) with a white truffle-oiled pita and truffle fries inside; and the El Greco ($9.99), a chicken Souvlaki with avocado, tomato, onion, sour cream and fries.
“Coming from a gastropub where you take regular bar food to a higher level with gourmet ingredients and meats, it’s hard not to use some of those ingredients at The OG,” Ballias says. “This is something I never saw with a Greek concept, but it just comes from who I am.”
The Greek influences start at the very beginning, with things like Saganaki cheese ($10.99), lightly-fried Greek Kefalograviera cheese served with lemon; Greek fries ($8.99) with tomato, red onion, feta cheese and Greek oregano; and Dodoni feta ($7.99) with drizzled extra virgin olive oil, pepper, Greek oregano and pita bread.
There’s a slew of great salads such as the pear and walnut ($10.99) and the Village ($8.99 small, $12.99 large) with tomato, cucumber, red onion, green peppers, feta and OG dressing. To hammer home the made-from-scratch approach, the dips such as the garlic hummus ($7.99); Melitsanosalata ($7.99), baked eggplant with garlic, onion and lemon; and Scordalia ($7.99), garlic, potato and olive oil spread, are all made in house.
Even three of the burgers have Greek roots. Made from the same amazing meat people are used to having at Wingcraft, the Greek versions are worth checking out: the Saganaki and spicy feta ($10.99 each) feature the same cheeses as the aforementioned appetizers; and the lamb and beef blend ($11.99) is topped with tzatziki, tomato, onion and greens.
“I wanted to keep true to my Greek concept, even though we are doing burgers,” Ballias says. “Yes, we have the classic American and a bacon, but I urge people to try the really cool Greek versions.”
If you really want to experience some great Greek cuisine, check out the Greek entrees, including the best pastitsio ($16) you will ever have. The Greek lasagna is layered with Pat LaFrieda ground beef, layers of macaroni and topped with Bechamel sauce and includes choice of soup or salad.
“For the first two weeks, it seemed like we only had Greeks coming in, who are the toughest critics when it comes to Greek food,” Ballias says. “But they love it. They are raving. And now that we are seeing everyone come in, we have had no complaints.”
Literally. As of earlier this week, there were 45 reviews on Facebook, all 5 Stars.
“We even make the baklava from scratch,” Ballias says of the famous Greek, layered dessert. “It was my grandmother’s recipe from my father’s side who taught my mother. Everyone who tries it says it’s the best.”
And while there is no question that the reason you should go to The OG is for its Greek food, some of the American staples people fell in love with at Wingcraft can be found without driving to A.C., including the classic American burger ($9.99); chicken tenders ($8.99) marinated in buttermilk and spices, hand-battered, fried and topped with choice of sauces including hot and honey, BBQ honey and Greek; and the Pat LaFrieda black angus Philly steak ($8.99), this time served in a pita with American cheese, lettuce, tomato, sautéed onion and a pinch of fries. The famous Wingcraft buffalo chicken can also be found in The OG’s buffalo chicken pita ($9.99) with blue cheese dressing and a pinch of fries. And the sweet potato marinara gyro ($9.99) with onion, tomato and sour cream may not sound awesome, but tastes amazing … another example of Ballias’ creative ability in the kitchen.
And for those looking for some South Jersey comfort food, you can also have cheese fries ($5.99), onion rings ($5.99) and mozzarella sticks ($7.99).
“The menu is still growing,” he says. “We started with the simpler things and will keep adding. We want to add spanakopita (spinach pie) and tiropita (cheese pie) and more desserts and weekly specials. I want to change it up constanty.”
It turns out The OG didn’t just solve Ballias’ problem of where to eat dinner, but it solved much of the mainland community’s dilemma.
“People are coming in and thanking us for opening,” he says. “They tell me how they have been waiting for something like this. I never had a welcome like that.”