It’s the first thing you notice (and catch a whiff of) when you walk into a Greek restaurant: a slow moving, vertical rotisserie used to make gyros (pronounced yee-ros), sandwiches that are also show stoppers.
Gyros are stars of Greek cuisine and, at one time, hard to track down in this region. Now the rotisseries are all over; many restaurants have several spinning. Meat is shaved off the tall apparatus in thin strips and tucked into warm pita with a messy combination of tomatoes, onions, occasionally fries, and addictive tzatziki sauce, made with yogurt and plenty of garlic. It’s a sandwich full of contradictions: hot but refreshing, crispy yet soft, carefully crafted but still a mouthful.
In Greece, small gyro shops abound. “You order from the window,” explains Greek-born Georgia Athanasiadis, co-owner of Esperia Grill in Brighton. “When I was a kid there were two gyro shops next to each other in my town and they both had long lines all the time.”
The metal equipment that cooks the marinated meat (traditionally pork) is called, simply, a “gyro machine,” and it’s an ingenious system, similar to Middle Eastern shawarma (made with lamb, chicken, or beef, but never pork). When the outermost layers of meat have cooked to a golden brown and are sliced off, the newly exposed meat browns, and that process continues until the skewer is bare. Because the spit is vertical, the meat bastes in its own cascading drippings as it turns, ensuring juiciness.
What constitutes an authentic gyro is a question that has divided Greeks for years. Some say fries are mandatory, others that pork is the only acceptable meat. Closely guarded family recipes are passed down and rarely change, so no two versions are identical. The constant among all gyros are big, bright flavor combinations. Here’s what we found when we set out to taste a sampling.
344 Washington St., Brighton, 617-254-8337, www.esperiagrill.com
Nine years ago, Greek-born Tim Athanasiadis and his wife, Georgia, converted their Brighton pizzeria into a Greek kouzina (kitchen). “We wanted to become the neighborhood ethnic restaurant,” says Tim. Esperia takes an extra step and browns gyro meat, fresh off the rotisserie, on the flattop before it hits the sandwich. This chars the morsels and brings the flavor out. Georgia, the chef, marinates her pork with garlic and oregano; for chicken she adds lemon to that, along with some family secrets. Fries are optional. The neighborhood’s getting a treat.
40 Needham St., Newton, 617-964-7766, www.farm-grill.com
A sandwich doesn’t become a gyro until you apply tzatziki, the cooling yogurt-based sauce. At the 20-year-old Farm Grill, the homemade yogurt is so thick it resembles cream cheese. The only other ingredients are olive oil, dill, heaps of garlic, and shredded cucumber. Owner Alexi Iliades says he uses an industrial cement mixer, paddle, and power drill to mix 20 gallons of sauce at a time. Instead of pork, Iliades favors a beef-lamb combo and chicken. The dry-rubbed meat marinates 48 hours before heading to “Aruba,” the nickname for the place behind the counter where the rotisseries sit. “People will come in just to buy the meat,” says Iliades, 24, the second generation to run the spot. “If you can eat the meat by itself, it’s worthy of going in the gyro.”
88 Peterborough St., The Fenway, 617-266-4978, www.gyrocity.com
Open a year, Gyro City has flavor to spare, and just one table and a lunch counter. The spot manages an impressive volume, using 1,000 pounds of pork in a week, says owner Paul Christopher. The son of Greek restaurateurs, he uses an electric knife to slice his 100-pound pork skewer, which is dry rubbed the night before and contains shoulder with some belly for flavor. “You just have to keep cutting and cutting so it cooks evenly,” he says. He believes fries are a crucial element, and heaps them onto his sandwiches, which are almost too wide to fold. As for others who think fries aren’t traditional, he offers this: “Go to Greece, get a gyro, and tell me how they make it.”
557 High St., Dedham, 781-467-0090
Owner Xeno Sountoulidis opened Kouzina Estiatorio seven years ago, after growing up in his parents’ pizzeria and deli business. There was a learning curve. “You can’t have a Greek restaurant without [gyros],” he says. “But I didn’t make my first one until we opened here, and it’s something you have to get a feel for, it’s not something that can be taught.” Sountoulidis, an Athens native who came to this country as an infant, uses a cone of ground lamb he cuts into large strips. After a quick trip to the grill, the gyro is built, but with an outlier: lettuce. “We wanted to Americanize it a bit,” he says. “Lettuce isn’t huge in Greece.”
The Feisty Greek
38 Vanderbilt Ave., Norwood, 781-769-1982, www.thefeistygreek.com
Brothers George and Charlie Tiglianidis opened The Feisty Greek in 2011 after closing their breakfast diner next door. Before they opened, these sons of Greek immigrants told a Greek man who owned gyro shops in Greece about their plan. “He told us what cuts of meat to use and how to marinate, slice, and stack it,” says George. At Feisty, pork consistently outsells chicken. “In Greece, it’s assumed that you want pork,” says George. “You have to specifically ask for chicken. Greek customers ask to have the meat shaved in front of them so it’s as fresh as possible. “You know it’s good when the Greeks come in,” says George’s wife, Tina Tiglianidis.
92 State St., and 3 Center Plaza, Boston, 617-227-0707, www.zoboston.com
The Boston lunch spots Zo emphasize meat and pita, no fries. Owner Andy Kolokythas opened the first one on Washington Street 13 years ago as Mediterraneo and changed the name to Zo when he moved to Center Plaza in 2008; State Street came in 2011. Some paprika gives the sandwich a smoky note, and it’s all wrapped in pita that’s crisp on the outside but warm and fluffy inside, lighter than you’d expect and the perfect host for the pork or chicken and accompaniments. “The bread has to be cooked properly on a high temperature grill so it gets soft and chewy,” he says. “Also, you shouldn’t put sauce on the bottom because it’ll melt into the bread and disappear.” Rotisseries are constantly rotating in this busy lunch spot, guaranteeing a fresh helping of pork or chicken. “In my opinion, the meat makes the gyro,” Kolokythas says.Jon Mael can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.