What does a Greek-Aussie go-get-’em girl transplanted to the US do? Why open up one of the few real Aussie restaurants in New York City. Yes, folks, if you’re in the mood for a kangaroo burger, you can get it in Astoria, Greek town, at the Thirsty Koala, compliments of restraunteur Christina Chellos.
Christina grew up in a Greek family proud of their heritage in Sydney. She was transferred by her finance company to work on Wall Street several years ago and stayed on. She was always a foodie and wanted at some point to open her own restaurant. She teamed up with bartender, Alex Styponias, a Greek-American from Astoria, and Katherine Fuchs, the head chef and retired FDNY EMS deputy chief who comes from a long line of chef and the three partners established Thirsty Koala.
“I was drawn to Astoria,” Christina explains in her endearing Australian drawl, “because it reminded me of home.” She grew up in the Greek section of Sydney and has always felt very Greek, in spite of her two adopted continents.
Chellos says in her home country, organic foods reign supreme. Australians, living on a large landmass, have access to produce and seafood all year long. The Thirsty Koala’s fish- and veggie-rich menu is inspired by this lifestyle, like their prawn tacos and vegan earth chili.
“The spirit of Australia is fresh and outdoorsy. We are very produce-oriented,” says Chellos. “That’s what we wanted to bring to the restaurant. We are a free-spirited, young country.”
This weekend the joint celebrates Australia Day, something like our Christopher Columbus Day. The burly bloks next to our table wearing tight Quantas Air sport shirts to show off their muscle were Aussie transplants as well as the Thirst Koala acts as an informal Australian culture center. The sound of smooth jazz provided by the sax and bass duo were punctuated by the roaring “Ozzy Ozzy Ozzy” that was taken up as a rolling slogan by the crowd, intimate but varied, packed around in less than 20 tables. The giant stuffed animal koala served as a mascot and grinned his approval upon the entire night.
Christine Chellos, being the multicultural Hellene that she is, flourishes her mark in the menu selections at the The Thirsty Koala: kangaroo sliders and steaks (yes, they fly it over from down under), traditional Aussie beef pies or pasties, vegan tacos, lamb lollipops, Greek-style vegetable mousaka, chicken parm, and of course, mahi mahi and other fresh fish. The deserts are also crowd-pleasers: hand-made truffles, triple T tiramisu (spiked with chocolate and glazed with espresso sauce), a lemon cake specialty also popularly Australian.
While we Hellenes are familiar with our immigrant history, our Australian cousins have one uniquely their own. As Christine mentions in her interview, Greeks started immigrating to Australia noticeably in the 1930s; Melbourne is the second most Greek populated geographic area outside of Greece. According to wikipedia, “The first wave of free Hellenic migrants commenced in the 1850s and continued through the end of the 19th century, prompted in part by the recent discovery of gold in the country. A young Greek immigrant born in Lemnos, Greece named Georgios Tramountanas (1822 – 29 January 1911) and anglicised as George North in 1858, was the first settler of Greek origin in South Australia in 1842. The Greek community of South Australia regards North (Tramountanas) as their Pioneering Grandfather. In 1901, the year of federation, the Australian census recorded 878 native Greeks that were born there (In Greece), now living in Australia. Many of these Greeks were owners of or were employed in shops and restaurants. Some were also cane-cutters in Queensland.
In the 20th century, the Greek government encouraged post-war migration as a way of solving poverty and unemployment problems, with the most favoured destination being West Germany although large numbers also went to Australia and Canada. Post WWII in the late 1940s, 1950s and 1960s, Greeks were among one of the main European races picked by the Australian government’s “Populate or perish” immigration scheme and due to this, thousands of Greeks migrated to Australia with just one purpose and that was to gain a better life and future for themselves and their families. The main destinations where these “Hellenes” immigrated were to cities such as Melbourne, Sydney and Adelaide. During these decades, the Greeks started making an impact in the country like never before, they were not only still establishing their own restaurants, this time they were also establishing their own Hellenic Community Clubs and Greek-Australian Soccer clubs.”
It is the same Greek immigrant story but on a different turf. Now that the world has gotten smaller, we get “the best of both” or three or more worlds. Where else can you eat a kangaroo burger learn about the Greek Australian experience and not have to use your passport? Astoria, Greek town of course. Yaissou and g’day mate.