Dino Karas grew up with the aroma of kourambiedes and melomakarona in his nose. The traditional cookies came out of the ovens in his house in Athens, Greece – it also housed the family’s bakery.
He started baking when he was 15. More than half a century later – how much more, he won’t say – the silver-haired Karas still is making the same powdered sugar-coated wedding cookies and soft, honey-soaked treats at Denver’s Omonia Bakery.
“I’ve been baking all my life,” he said. His friend, Jimmy Tsiopelas, provides translation because Karas still has a little difficulty with English. Tsiopelas, who was born in Tripoli, Greece, sells Omonia’s baklava and other sweets at his restaurant, Chef Zorba’s Cuisine.
Karas arrived in New York City in 1978, looking for “a better life. It was hard to make any money in Greece,” he said. Two years later, he joined his brother, Nick, who had moved to Denver about a decade earlier. Nick Karas had owned the Greek Village restaurant on Broadway.
They originally opened the bakery and cafe across Colfax Avenue in 1981 before moving to its current space in 1984. Omonia is named after a bustling central square in Greece’s capital city that includes a famous coffee house.
Although he sells to some local eateries, most of the business is done over the glass cases filled with several dozen types of goodies.
“I sell to Greeks, Americans, Ethiopians . . . Chinese, too,” he said.
Jimmy Tsiopelas estimates that there are 10,000 to 15,000 Greeks – first-, second- and third-generation – in the Denver metro area. Karas supplies them with cakes for birthdays, baptisms, and weddings. He also double-bakes biscotti-like raisin and anise toasts for dunking in coffee. “They serve those after funerals,” Karas said.
Proudly pointing out the various frosted treats, Karas said, “It’s flour, eggs and sugar – no mixes.” After all these years, the recipes are all in his head. He will make more than 200 almond, macaroon or Greek wedding cookies at a time.
Omonia’s best-selling items are baklava and spandrels, followed by the flaky, layered, cream-filled napoleons and the soft honey cookies.
“I like the tiropita best,” he said of the cheese-filled snacks.
Another customer favorite is the braided bread – sweet, eggy, yeasted loaves baked golden brown that are perfect for French toast. During Easter season, Karas sells the challah-like loaves with traditional colored hard-boiled eggs baked into the top.
In the past few years, Karas said, his East Colfax neighborhood has changed for the better. He has noticed new customers coming in, some from newly built apartment buildings nearby and others from the Tattered Cover Bookstore a block away. “Everybody likes pastries,” he said with a smile.
As the street lights come on, the evening customers stop in at Omonia Bakery for koulourakia cookies ideal for dipping, buttery spanakopeta and rich baba au rhum cakes. Dino Karas puts aside his game of solitaire, plays Greek music on his boom box, dons his white apron and slips behind the counter.
“How you doin’?” he said “You want some baklava? How much?”
If You Go
2813 E. Colfax Ave.
Denver, Colorado 80206
Hours: 9 a.m.-10 p.m. daily
Price range: 50 cents-$5
This piece was originally published in the Rocky Mountain News.
John Lehndorff is the former dining critic and travel writer at the Rocky Mountain News and food editor at the Daily Camera. He is a Boulder-based writer whose columns and features appear in Yellow Scene Magazine and Edible Front Range magazine. He pens a food trend blog at: johnlehndorff.wordpress.com. For more information: johnlehndorff.com