When I decided to follow up on the suggestions of a few readers who wrote in to nominate their favorite gyros joints for Hole-in-the-Wall Month, I had some vague memory of gyros being the provenance of the Greeks. After my childhood excursions to Chicago's Greek Town, I expected to find stands selling gyros alongside souvlaki (kabobs), hummus, and lemon-and-oregano-rubbed roast chicken. But gyros have gone multiculti since then. As I learned this past week, you can now get your gyros with smoothies, battered shrimp, and nachos.
The first stop on my expedition is Gyros Corner in Newark's Newpark Mall. My friends and I wander through the mall to the food court on the second floor, a flotilla of tables adrift on an ocean of white tile, lit by fluorescent strips and constellations of blue and red neon art. "Greek Food" proclaims Gyros Corner's sign, right above another advertising its "Philly cheese steak." Besides the gyros -- which are halal, by the way -- and the cheese steaks, it also serves fish and chips and steam-table curries. (From the looks of the latter, I'd say stick to the sandwiches.)
It costs no more than $6 for any meal, most of which include a soft drink. We narrow our geographic focus to the food of the Ottoman Empire, such as felafel (falafel) and chicken kebabs. Four tennis-ball-size felafel, with soggy exteriors, taste like they were made from a store-bought mix a couple of days earlier. They come with a few pieces of pita, a tiny plastic tub of lemony hummus, and a haystack of undressed, shredded iceberg lettuce decorated with cucumber, tomato, and olives. We enjoy the big chunks of chicken kabobs, which are a bit dry but are sprinkled generously with spices and sumac, the tart seasoning that shows up all over the Middle East. We skip the Uncle Ben's rice pilaf underneath.
But the gyro is good; juicy and peppery. The puffy, fresh pita it is wrapped in soaks up the meat juices, and the thick tzatziki (seasoned yogurt) we squeeze from a plastic tub is fine. The mess of crinkle-cut fries on the side also is decent, but could have been fried a little longer. According to Abdullah Harool, who owns Gyros Corner with Arif Kahn, his gyros are made by a guy in San Jose, not by one of the national gyros producers who dominate the market. The Pakistani-Afghan pair make their chicken gyros and all the kabobs in-house.
My night changes when I dip a chunk of chicken in a tiny plastic pot of a mysterious, watery green sauce and stick it into my mouth. "Uummgh!" I grunt ecstatically. My friends look up, worried that I'm choking. I push the pot over to them. They dip. They taste. Their eyes widen. The owners have thrown mint, jalapeños, and white vinegar into a blender and whirled it into a puckery, tingly chutney that makes everything pop. We start dipping pieces of gyros in, then fries, then pita. If my mother were here I'd dip her in, too. Hardly authentic Greek, but damn, is it good.
Athenian Deli in downtown Oakland doesn't exactly qualify as a hole-in-the-wall. The 25-year-old lunch spot is too brightly lit and way too packed, with the look of a well-loved neighborhood cafe. At noon the line stretches three or four yards, and harried business people are hunched over their sandwiches at almost every table. The glass counter holds spanakopitas, a bedraggled lasagna, plastic tubs of pasta salads, and odds and ends from sandwiches. I keep looking for the familiar gyros meat log and glowing spit, but can't spot either anywhere.
Like Gyros Corner, the deli may serve gyros but it doesn't just stick to Greek food. Babaganouch sandwiches and houmous platters (their spellings) make up half the menu, but regular old tuna melts, potato salads, and smoothies take up the other half.
My friends and I order a gyro, a lamb sandwich, and a "mazza platter," one of the vegetarian combo plates, from owner Steve Zasdekis, an older Greek man with thick glasses and a gruff smile. We snake our way through the tables to a seat by the window. Five minutes later a friendly food runner brings our plates to us, the sandwiches folded into half-moons and half-tucked into little paper bags labeled "Kronos Gyros: Everyone's favorite brand of gyros." Under the shaved white onions and pale coral tomatoes is a tangle of pale brown meat that looks too thin and evenly sliced to be hand-carved. It is presliced, preformed gyros.
The gyros meat tastes like lamb bologna. The roast lamb, also prefab, fares better. With a hefty dollop of a wonderfully tart, dill-spiked tzatziki, it's not hard to pretend that you're eating unprocessed meat. The best thing about the sandwiches is the fluffy, warm pita bread, which, one of the cooks tells us, comes from the same company that makes the meat. Quartered, it accompanies the mazza platter, and we eat it so greedily that we have to go back for extra slices. The appeal of the rest of the platter, though, is mixed: more of that tzatziki spooned over decent felafel rounds; hummus lacking in lemon and garlic; beautifully smoky, creamy baba ghanoush; fresh green tabbouleh that could also use an extra squeeze of lemon; a tasty pasta salad tossed in pesto mayonnaise.
A couple of bored skate punks smoking ccigarettes guard the entrance to Flora's Gyros and Hot Dogs in a Pleasant Hill strip mall. We stake out seats under a cluster of tourism photos of the Greek islands and go to the counter. The board overhead lists chicken and beef gyros and a couple types of souvlaki.
The owners of Flora's, a Cypriot couple named Sam and Ellie Vassiliou, once owned the Savoy restaurants (a local chain). They came out of retirement to buy Flora's from their friend Flora eighteen months ago. The friendly pair run the stand with a frank mom-and-pop charm. "No lamb, no chicken," Ellie calls out from her place at the griddle to the customers ahead of us. Her husband shrugs and smiles. "It's the end of the day, so if we run out, we run out. There'll be more tomorrow." When it comes our turn to order, we pick a beef gyro and a pork souvlaki.
Though a sign overhead announces that Flora's gyros also come from Kronos Products, I am reassured to see Ellie slicing long strips of meat off a cone, and then tossing them on the grill to heat up. The extra griddling gives the meat smoky charred edges, which we appreciate. My chunks of lean pork are pink, not too tough, and nicely seasoned. The Vassilious haven't added anything to the yogurt slathered over the top to make it tzatziki, but the tomatoes have seen some sun, the greens come from heads of green leaf lettuce, not iceberg, and we get to eat more of that Kronos pita. Both of the sandwiches are topped with some kind of mutant onion, though -- so potent it has a stingingly bitter aftertaste -- so we pull it off and enjoy the rest of the wrap.
Sam comes by the table to ask how we are enjoying everything, then hawks his baklava, which he claims had come out of the oven an hour before. "We bake it ourselves twice a day," he boasts. "We make the first pan at 11 o'clock and it's gone in an hour." The huge wedge we try is not too sweet, delicately perfumed with rose water, and light. "That's an adjective you don't often apply to baklava," says my friend Terence.
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