Zaleks Grill & Seafood
21 Princess St., Wakefield
Hours: Monday-Saturday, 11 a.m.-9 p.m.; Sunday, noon-8 p.m.
MasterCard and Visa accepted
Accessible to the handicapped
Zaleks Grill & Seafood feels like one of those seaside eateries that are mainstays of summer vacations at the shore: super-casual dining, staffed by local teenagers, and best enjoyed al fresco, with an emphasis on fresh seafood and grilled fare.
But there's no need for a trek to Ogunquit, Maine, or Provincetown, as Zaleks is tucked away just off the main drag in land-locked Wakefield.
Like most unpretentious seaside favorites, Zaleks has a menu that starts off humbly, loaded with burgers, fried seafood, sandwiches, and pizzas. But the fare steps up smartly from there, offering an array of spectacular char-grilled kebabs and fresh fish.
At all price points, Zaleks offers tremendous value for the money, and the casual atmosphere and variety of food certainly make for family-friendly dining.
At the entry level, the Greek dinner ($7) was a heaping gyros sandwich complemented by tasty warm stuffed grape leaves and a cool, crisp salad of lettuce, feta, and olives. The dish was an admirably authentic take on Greek cuisine, and while served on a plastic plate, was attractively presented.
The fish and chips ($9) were cooked just long enough to be light and flaky, without becoming sodden with oil. Although a generous portion of fish accompanied by a mound of yummy steak fries, this was the rare fried fish entrée that didn't leave me feeling overstuffed.
The grilled kebabs and fresh fish entrees, a small step up the price scale, were exceptional. The lightly marinated chicken kebabs ($10) had a delightfully tender, juicy interior with flavorful charring, the skewers rounded out by onions and peppers.
The grilled ahi tuna ($13) was an extraordinarily generous portion, easily two to three times the size of a typical restaurant tuna steak. While cooked slightly beyond my request of medium-rare, the meat was still extremely moist and flavorful.
The mahi-mahi ($12) was minimalist in the best sense of the word, with few added tastes masking the delicious natural flavor of the fish and the grilling.
Most kebabs and grilled dishes come with a choice of intriguing sides (also available a la carte) and side salads. Among the sides, my favorites were the sweet potato fries, which were fresh and reminiscent of actual sweet potatoes, not oil; the grilled green pepper stuffed with feta, whose charred exterior set off its tangy, melted cheese filling; and the simple, nothing-if-not-summery grilled tomatoes.
Less exciting: The pineapple jasmine rice lacked pineapple flavor, and the grilled asparagus spears were a tad tough and woody.
There are no desserts on the Zaleks menu, and diners are invited to bring their own alcohol. Even teetotalers would do well to bring their own beverages, since two refrigerator cases offer only a limited array of bottled soft drinks, iced tea, juice, and water.
The vibe at Zaleks is distinctly more cafeteria than traditional sit-down; on my first visit, I was jarred by the dissonance of very good food in such a thoroughly utilitarian setting. You place your order at the counter, and then take a seat and await delivery of your dinner on plastic trays.
The wait, while generally no longer than at a sit-down restaurant, varies greatly. Sometimes it feels downright pokey, perhaps because the cafeteria feel feeds expectations of cafeteria-speed service.
Weather permitting, the outdoor seating area is the place to be. While the tree-lined patio abuts parking lots, the surrounding area is generally quiet, aside from the occasional rumble of fire engines from the adjacent municipal building. Nonetheless, it's a pleasant, relaxing spot for dinner on a summer evening.