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July 30, 2010

Central Gyros

Gyros Spits Dominic Armato

You ask me to name restaurants of my childhood, and other than Showbiz Pizza Place and Superdawg, Central Gyros is pretty much the only one I don't have to think about.

This is old school Chicago at its finest, a Greek restaurant where the waitresses are lifers, the walls are decorated with sculpted styrofoam and there are no fewer than four Chicago police officers eating at any given time. "Greek" might actually be a more accurate moniker than Greek, and I don't say this with the slightest hint of derision. Chicago Greek is kind of its own little Americanized subset of the cuisine and, like Italian-American, it has its own seductive charms even if those charms might be lost on relatives visiting from the mother country.

Of course, I wasn't seeking authenticity when I visited a few weeks ago, I was seeking nostalgia. We must've eaten at Central Gyros once a month when I was growing up (at least it seemed that way), but other than a single visit during my abbreviated college years, when I corralled a few friends who couldn't understand why we were driving half an hour west to hit a divey Greek place, I don't think I'd been there since high school. Unsurprisingly, little has changed. The sign out front that features a glowing, rotating gyro spit looks every bit as decrepit as it always did. The wait staff may very well be the same people. The roasting meat is still front and center as you walk in the door, in a front galley kitchen lined with reddish brown tile. The carved styrofoam murals that line the walls have been repainted and are now brightly colored rather than their former dusty gold, but this is still a casual neighborhood joint that serves up all of the Greek-American standards.

SaganakiDominic Armato

Said standards start with saganaki, which is a moral imperative when visiting any such place. I confess I'm unsure how widespread the practice has become, so for those who may be unaware, saganaki -- at least as it's served here -- is a Greek-American hybrid dish that's generally accepted to have originated in Chicago's Greektown in the late '60s, with Parthenon Restaurant holding the most credible claim to its invention. Though melted cheese spritzed with lemon is entirely common in Greece, the Americanized version involves more than a little showmanship. A thick slab of sheep's milk cheese -- a number of varieties can be used -- is dusted with flour and seared in a small superheated pan from whence the dish takes its name. The cheese is then doused with brandy, flambéed tableside, and served sizzling hot with a spritz of fresh lemon. When on, it's killer, and Central Gyros' is the same as it ever was. The whole production is kind of corny, a throwback to an era when it took three foot tall flames and yells of "Opa!" to get Americans to try ethnic cuisine. But crisped on the outside with a gooey, melty interior and the sour tang of both the cheese and lemon, the dish itself holds its own. It's a crowd-pleaser, even without the theatrics.

TaramosalataDominic Armato

Central Gyros' taramosalata may have been largely responsible for my status as social outcast while growing up. When you're in second grade, trumpeting your affection for creamy goop comprised primarily of fish eggs is not the way to win friends and influence people. The kid who ate worms may have had a leg up on me. This version is, I believe, a potato base, and I can't claim wide experience with taramosalata, so for me this is pretty much the standard. It's a thick and pasty rendition, unabashedly salty and best spread on bread. Despite sharing the table with five other adults, I think I finished two of the scoops. Some things never change. And though my playground social status may have taken a hit, I credit this taramosalata with teaching me at an early age that some foods aren't nearly as strange as they sound.

Fried EggplantDominic Armato

A couple of years back, I was gratified to learn that my compatriots over at LTH Forum had discovered Central Gyros, and most who visited had taken to it quite favorably. Of course, it's always interesting to hear a fresh take on a place you've been visiting all your life, and the one bit of information I found most valuable was that their fried eggplant is exceptonal. It is, and I have Michael Morowitz (eatchicago) to thank for introducing me to a new favorite dish at an old favorite place. Not a singular favorite, mind you, but one I'll have a hard time passing on henceforth. The fried eggplant is exceptional, sliced into centimeter-thick half moons and fried so that the outer surface is crisp bordering on brittle while the eggplant inside practically melts into a warm vegetable goo. It's so good that the accompanying skordalia -- pasty garlic and potato dip -- isn't really necessary, but it's still a better dish for it. Thanks, Michael!

GyrosDominic Armato

The restaurant's namesake and king of the Chicago Greek staples is, of course, the gyros, so a meal would somehow seem incomplete without. What the United States knows as gyros was, for better or worse, another Chicago invention, though precisely which enterprising soul first started selling it in its mass-produced state is in dispute. Gyros is, of course, an actual Greek dish that traces all the way back to the Turkish doner kebab, but 18th century Turks who carefully layered fresh cuts of lamb to prepare theirs would no doubt be taken aback by the processed meatloaf cone that could only be the product of the meatpacker for the nation. But though less than artful, there's a certain entrepreneurial charm to Chicago-style gyros, and it can make for a damn fine if less than rustic sandwich. Given the product's uniformity, it's really a matter of preparation, ensuring that the meat is hot and crisped by the fire without getting greasy. On this trip, Central Gyros half succeeded. Methinks this was not carved fresh from the flaming spit, which is a shame. But it still scratched the itch, even if it was a little lackluster on this particular occasion.

Souvlaki SandwichDominic Armato

More disappointing was the old Armato family standby, the souvlaki sandwich. Here, chunks of pork tenderloin are marinated in olive oil, lemon juice and herbs before being skewered and grilled and served on a pita with tomatoes, onions and tzatziki. Aside from the institutional tomatoes, the accompaniments were spot on, with a warm, pillowy and lightly crisped pita and thick, garlicky tzatziki (Chicago Greek is not so much with the subtlety). But the beloved pork wasn't cutting it this evening, a little cool and oddly shy on flavor. I'd have written it off to either an off night or memories tinged by rose-colored glasses, but I'm informed by my family that the off nights have been a little more frequent than the on nights as of late, which is troubling.

A little Greek coffee and we were stepping out the front door and back into the present. As the food goes, Central Gyros wasn't quite what I remembered. Though some favorites remained unchanged, others seemed unusually weak. But Central Gyros is preserved in amber, both metaphorically and literally (the decor IS kinda reddish-brown). It embodies the food and atmosphere of a bygone era and that, coupled with a number of dishes that are still pretty darn good (and a couple that are great), make it a place to visit, even if you're lacking the nostalgia factor.

Central Gyros
3127 N. Central Avenue
Chicago, IL 60641


why is a guy in phoenix reviewing a restaurant a mile from my house?

real question: why have I still not yet made it here? all the praise on LTH, my deep, abiding love of gyros and greek appetizers, and my laziness should have made it a slam dunk the week we moved in.

no more delays.

I'm delighted that you caught on to the eggplant. It still remains one of my favorite side dishes in the city. I see a gyros plate and some eggplant in my near future.

Great write-up, Dom!

Ah, memories. I grew up on the NW side and a trip to Central Gyros was always a treat. That area around Belmont and Central used to be a restaurant Mecca. I had to practically beg my parents to go to Central or one of the fine Polish smorgasbords instead of the Long John Silvers.

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