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August 03, 2011

Gyros Crawl

Gyros @ Z's Greek Dominic Armato

Let it never be said that I'm slave to a previously held notion.

Like any faithful son of Chicago, I dig a good gyros sandwich. While I reserve my true love for things like Italian beef and Chicago-style dogs, you don't grow up in a town where gyros is such a such a fixture without developing an appreciation. Gyros, at least as it's most often practiced here in the States, is another Chicago contribution to the greasy food scene. Like so many other vertical spit-roasted meats, its less-processed origins are rooted in the Turkish döner kebab by way of Greece, but leave it to the nation's meatpacker to turn something historically less... uniform... into the mass produced pressed loaf that has come to define the dish for us here in the States. But hey, such dubious shifts in culinary standards sometimes have their charms (spam, anyone?) and this less than rustic interpretation of the original is entirely worthy of attention. Though there's some disagreement about who first created and popularized the loaf, that it emerged in Chicago in the '60s is settled culinary history. And so, as with so many other greasy Chicago comfort foods, I was positively delighted to discover that it's widely available here in Phoenix. But I've been puzzled, as of late, by the love shown for Z's Greek, where I had an absolutely abysmal gyros sandwich about a year ago. I'd since tried a couple of others that I thought were better, but it never hurts to be pseudo-scientific about these things, which led me to the obvious answer: gyros crawl.

Now, this is by no means meant to be comprehensive. There are scads of joints offering gyros around town, and given that it's a product a little more uniform than, say, an Italian beef, it isn't something I've felt compelled to try every chance I get. So here are just a few spots that I hit in rapid succession yesterday, in an attempt to discern whether the attention given to Z's Greek is well-deserved. Just to lay a baseline, what am I looking for in a Chicago-style gyros sandwich? First, the pita. Fresh, supple, hot, and browned a little on the griddle. Second, the tzatziki. Full flavor, nice and creamy, good seasonings, and hopefully some fresh cucumber, though there's a whole lot of room for stylistic variation on this one. Third, the vegetables. Well, the truth is that the vegetables are usually kind of an afterthought on a gyros sandwich. Anything other than a few pieces of onion and some cardboard tomato is really a bonus. And lastly, the meat. The pre-processed nature of the gyros cone makes for a uniform product, so it's really all in the prep. A spit is critical, and preferably more than one. You want the fat basting the meat so that it's hot, browned, and ideally even crisped just a touch, sliced right off a sizzling cone into your sandwich. And of course, none of these are hard and fast rules. There's always room for variations, provided they're positive. But as a baseline, that's where I'm starting.

George's Famous GyrosDominic Armato

George's Famous Gyros

First up, George's Famous Gyros on McKellips, not to be confused with George's Gyros on Country Club Drive in Mesa. I understand the folks who originally owned George's Gyros sold and subsequently opened George's Famous Gyros, which means there's no official connection between the two, though the names suggest otherwise. What got me excited about George's on a couple of earlier visits was that they had two spits going. Leaving one to brown and sizzle while you carve from the other and alternating back and forth is really the only way to ensure you're turning out sandwiches with nice, crisp meat during the lunch rush. Heck, my old favorite Chicago-style Greek joint, Central Gyros, has four spits up front (though one's usually occupied by chicken and the fourth isn't always in operation). Or at least I thought this was something I loved about George's. Turns out they either got rid of a spit, or my memory is shot, and I fear the latter is more likely. In any case, they still managed to get a little bit of color on the meat -- Kronos, for gyros nerds -- even during a busy lunch rush, though not enough for my tastes, and there wasn't much of a sense of sizzle from the spit. The meat was certainly plentiful. The tzatziki was pretty decent, thick and creamy with a healthy amount of garlic and dill, though no obvious cucumber. And the vegetables were pretty typical... a little onion and unripe tomato. All told, a passable sandwich, but nothing to get excited about.

Chicago GyrosDominic Armato

Chicago Gyros

Next up, Chicago Gyros, at 46th Street and Indian School. Chicago Gyros was... less than good. The pita needed a little more griddle love, for starters, though a larger problem was the meat. I watched them cut it right off the cone, but it had no color or sizzle at all. The place already had a dozen diners when I walked in, and this may be Exhibit A for why you run a second spit. Though they could've at least gone the cheater's route of tossing the sliced meat on the griddle for a couple of minutes. It's no substitute for basting on the spit, but it gives you a little sizzle. The tzatziki wasn't terribly impressive, either. It was thinner than George's, didn't have that nice yogurty creaminess, and tasted of dried dill and lots and lots of black pepper. The worst part? An unpleasant aftertaste as I drove between gyros joints. Chicago Gyros was the only one that didn't display posters proclaiming their gyros allegiance, so I don't know whose product they're using, but while the sandwich was abundant, I found myself wishing there'd been less of it. I just wasn't digging the flavor. A weak sandwich. Though they say they marinate and produce their own schwarma and souvlaki, which might merit further research.

Z's GreekDominic Armato

Z's Greek

And so we arrive at Z's Greek, where I had an awful, awful sandwich a year ago. What caused me to write it off was meat so unpleasant that I assumed they didn't even have a spit. It was wet, spongy and grey. I considered the possibility that it had been steamed or baked. Not so on this day, when I could see the spit in action -- but more on that in a moment. The pita was the best of the three, similar product but shown a good amount of griddle love, a little browned and crispy in spots but still warm and supple. Ditto on the tzatziki, which was rich and creamy, with a potent but not overpowering hit of garlic, refreshing amount of dill and an abundance of fresh, shredded cucumber. Even the vegetables were a step up. The tomatoes were still of the cardboard variety, but they were a little more abundant, and there was a pleasant addition of fresh lettuce, making the sandwich a little less one-dimensional. Which brings us to the meat. Again, it was the best of the three, though I say so with reservations. Courtesy of Grecian Delight, it was browned, but didn't have much in the way of sizzle or crispness. I spied a single spit in the back with a slowly rotating cone of meat, but noticed that it went untouched as numerous orders went through the kitchen. My suspicion? They're carving and holding, which explains everything, even providing possible insight into the problems with my previous visit. I might've missed the lunch rush last time, which ideally means you're getting beautiful, sizzling meat since a dozen sandwiches' worth wasn't sliced off right before yours. But if some of the already sliced product was left in a holding pan after the rush, steaming away in its own heat? This is all speculation, of course, but I'm betting that's what happened. In any case, there's room for improvement in Z's gyros sandwich. I finished up the gyros crawl still craving that hot, lightly crisped meat. And I could see some complaining that the meat isn't as abundant as it is on some of its contemporaries, though I advocate balance over pure volume and Z's passes that test. But it's a very good sandwich, made with care, that beats the others by a country mile. If they'd just put in a second spit and slice fresh, boy howdy, then you'd really have something. Dare to dream.

George's Famous Gyros
7620 E. McKellips Road
Scottsdale, AZ 85257
Mon - Sun11:00 AM - 8:00 PM
Chicago Gyros
4730 E. Indian School Rd.
Phoenix, TX 85018

Z's Greek
4026 E. Indian School Road
Phoenix, AZ 85016
Mon - Sat11:00 AM - 9:00 PM
Sun12:00 PM - 9:00 PM


I'm a fan of George's, especially since I'm within walking distance of the place. I agree with you wholeheartedly on your gyro assessment. My biggest complaint about the place is the lack of consistency--the quality of your food greatly depends on who's in the back that day. A year ago their product was pretty great, but as business has picked up and they've increased the number of employees, there's been a noticeable drop in quality of both food and customer service.

I WIN! Now what did we bet again? ;)

In all seriousness, I usually get crispy meat at Z's, but I tend to eat lunch around 3pm or so, probably after the spit has been going for some time. My guess is that the guys would accommodate a request for "crispy meat, please," even if it means the cheating grill method. Worth asking.

So now I have to make my crazy order even longer: "Regular Greek salad with gyro meat, light on the feta, no pita...crispy meat, please!" They'll love it.

Eek! You had me with the pita, veggie, and tzatziki descriptions, but crispy brown meat?! That just means the stuff has been sitting there all day going round and round & drying out - yuck! I guess I feel like an authority on the subject since I am Greek & I've had Gyros growing up back East, in Chicago AND in Greece! You did redeem yourself by admitting that Z's IS the best in town - but we'll have to agree to disagree on the meat ;)
p.s. if you haven't already, be sure to try Eden's Grill (NE T-Bird & Tatum). They're Lebanese - great Mediterranean food. Be sure to go when they have the lamb shank they cook 10+ hours & the rice with almonds & golden raisins is to die for!

J. Kappa... I think I may have lent the wrong impression by using the word "crisp." I'm not talking about dried out crispy. I'm talking about ever so lightly crisped in places, with that kind of sizzle that means it was taken fresh off the spit rather than sitting around cooking in its own steam for a while, and had been given enough time on the spit for the fat to come out and baste it for a while. There's a balance to be struck. Of course you don't want it dried out. But you want the sense that it was slowly roasting rather than sitting in a tray. If you don't like that, then yes, we'll have to agree to disagree :-) But I suspect we're not so far apart here.

A good read. Haven't been to the others, but I enjoyed Z's. Like the heavy use of garlic and dill in the sauce and the pita actually had flavor. I also liked the greek salad on the side....it was COVERED in feta. Good hummus too. Not perfect (nothing ever is), but probably the best I've had in town. Definitely satisfied my craving, that's for sure.

If I may object to your meat assumptions (and possibly offend your Chicago sensibilities): why does the meat all have to be the same? First, I've had the doner kebab version in Germany and the meat is better even though processed. I've also had any number of good gyros here where the meat is not the cone, but sliced strips of lamb leg or beef. Personally, those are the gyros I remember, not the cone of "meat"

One other nit: I'm a hugggge fan of dill in my sauce. Not eveyone uses it, but I think it to be a big plus (along with garlic, cucumber, etc...)

Anon Man... Noooononono, that's not what I meant. It doesn't have to be that way at all. I'm saying that *within this particular subgenre* the reality is that the meat is uniform.

Hell, I'd LOVE to find a place that actually marinates and stacks fresh meat. That just isn't the subject of this particular post.

Fair enough. That does make sense and is a good limitation. I've certainly inhaled a few gross of the "standard" gyro over the years, and I do like one with a crisped pita, and a little sear on the meat. Given the massive Greek population in Chicago, I'm surprised you didn't find such a place there. We have one in DC (two, actually).

Anon Man... wait... what? Clearly, we have a failure to communicate here :-)

I'm not talking about Chicago at all here, except in reference to the history. Talking purely Phoenix, purely processed meat cone.

Yeah, we did miss each other there. When you said "you would love to find a place" I sort of assumed you meant you had NEVER found such a place, which would be surprising because of the Chicago connection. In Phoenix, not so surprising. If you find one there, I'm sure you'll let your loyal readers know.... :)

Anon man, what are your reccs for DC, if you don't mind?

I have a good memory of Pitta Souvli in Chandler, but I've only been there once so I can't vouch for the consistency.

I happen to like the Greek Deli for lunch even though he uses the cone. There's a place in McLean called Mylos that only does Gyros from time to time and they make their own. I've have been told, but have not personally verified that the place on K and 17th does a homemade meat for an upscale Gyro.

BTW, Anon Man, it's not you... it's me.

Edited for clarity.

Let's say it was both of us. By the way, I was thinking of you last night. I was flipping channels late after I couldn't take any more financial news, and I happened upon guilty pleasure Man v. Food, and he was in Chicago.

@anon man:

This will be out of nowhere, and not related to this specific post, but I wanted to give you a shoutout for the recommendation to eat at Tu Lan in SF. It was delicious and I loved the divy, prompt service. The empirical rolls (cha gio) were awesome, and you can't beat the price. A HUGE bowl of food for $6? Craziness. Even if you don't remember the rec, take the credit, anyways.

jh, thanks! Tu Lan is a great food memory. When I was in law school, we would walk over there (through not the greatest parts of town) for good, authentic (and cheap--we were students) food. The city doesn't have the largest collection of Vietnamese, and the one everyone raves about is completely overrated IMHO. So, always glad to steer people to the good folks at Tu Lan. Do they still have the Julia Childs picture on the menus?


To be honest, I didn't pay attention. Since I generally order the same dishes, or slight variations thereof of, at Vietnamese restaurants, the experience went like this. Walk in the door, got immediately seated with a menu. Glass of water appears at the table in seconds and I order. Menu goes away. Food appears in front of me in 2 minutes. Eat while watching one of the employees wrap dumplings. Pay and leave.

When I go back, I'll report back to you about the menus :-)

The empirical rolls (cha gio) were awesome

As a math nerd, I require more details.



(The pictures are not mine. I found them in a google search)

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