Where the Gyrokone Stops
701 W. Lake St., Mpls.; 824-7887.
1501 University Ave. S.E., Suite 209, Mpls.;
First, it was nothing but shock. There I was, mincing garlic for some pasta, the TV supplying some always-needed background static, when that commercial came on. Scrubbed, sweater-clad, adult Americans, sitting in a classroom, while a TV teacher with a TV pointer led them through pronunciation lessons: heeer-ooossss. Yeeer-oh. Jeye-roh. No matter how you pronounce it, said the commercial, it will still be good.
Could it be? The most unapologetically onion-laden, garlic-accented, er, aromatic of all fast foods absorbed and spit out by a fast-food giant? I threw down my paring knife and sprinted to the Hardee's on University and 10th--which, of course, didn't carry it, affording me time for deeper philosophical speculation. How could such a white-bread, mass-market gargantua--heretofore known mainly as the last refuge of curly fries--even know about, much less try to market, such an ethnically ripe food? On the one hand there's the fact that McDonald's in Maine and on Cape Cod do sell lobster rolls. On the other, gyros are traditionally dressed with tzatziki sauce, which is made mostly of plain yogurt--another anti-mass-market flavor.
On one hand pizza: one-time Italian oven-roasted bread, transformed by a thousand American entrepreneurs into the zillion spectacularly American variations that we all cherish--from the wood-fired arugula-pesto-topped snoot-fests to the Meat Lover's Stuffed Crust heart-stoppers. On the other hand, lamb, another strike against universal popularity. Anyway, what did I really know about gyros anyway? With the help of my trusty computer it took only a few hours before I knew plenty. Like that that spinning block of meat is a patented construct known as the GYROKONE(TM), created by Chicago entrepreneur and Greek immigrant Christopher Tomaras, founder of Kronos-Central, the company that still provides most gyros shops with their meat and tzatziki. That the name comes, like gyroscope and gyrocopter, from gyro--meaning turning, in this case the rotating action of the spit. (For more on gyros history see Gyro, Gyro, Gyro! a Web site at http://www.erols.com/textuscs/gyros/index.htm)
That gyros signs are a rich vein of Chicago folk art, as seen at The Gyros Project: http://www.mcs.com/~billsw/ii/pix/gyros/gyrexp.htm. That there are substantial variations in gyros composition from coast to coast: In New York you'll often get cucumber chunks on your gyros; in Chicago you might find feta crumbles. That the correct pronunciation is impossible in English since, according to one linguist, "In Greek, the word is spelled with an initial 'gamma,' generally pronounced as a palatal glide before front vowels, though some pronounce the gamma as a voiced or voiceless velar fricative, or even as a voiced alveo-palatal fricative. Never mind what these are, English doesn't have most of 'em anyway. 'Y' is close enough." (http://www.ctext.com/jmonkey/insp43.html)
So gyros is probably pronounced yeeh-roh, though a persuasive case can be made for pronouncing it like they do in New York, that is jeye-roh, like gyroscope, because we American English-speakers don't like to sound pretentious, and we Americanize lots of words effectively--like how in New Orleans one orders a poor boy, not a pourboire, and we all say pete-za, not peez'a.
Eventually, like one of those near-death experiencers who learns to stop and smell the roses, I resolved to appreciate the great and diverse gyros that we are blessed with here and now, so I made a systematic survey of all the top gyros in the Twin Cities, to bring you what might just be City Pages' First Annual Gyros Pageant.
Gyros were judged by a set of rigorous criteria, the internationally recognized Kronos Equation, (M+2T+P+V+A)/6+(1/10v+g)=G, in which meat (M), tzatziki (T), pita (P), veggies (V), and ambience (A) are all judged on a scale of one to 10, added together, divided by six, and finished with 1/10 of the less important (but still kind of important) qualities of value and Greek salad. Tzatziki--a plain yogurt and cucumber sauce that might include lemon juice, red-wine vinegar, dill, parsley, fresh garlic, minced onions, cracked pepper, or whatever thrills you--is double-weighted because it is the primary arena for artistic flair. Many tzatziki makers omit the cucumber altogether.
Christos (Union Depot, St. Paul, 224-6000; 2632 Nicollet Ave., Mpls., 871-2111): They don't much care about gyros at this sort-of-sophisticated spot, and serve a minimalist's version: warm meat on a warm pita, a good spoonful of tzatziki, a few bites of onion and tomato--gyros here seem like a concession to their regular customers' children ($4.35 for a sandwich; $8.95 with a cup of soup or salad and fries). Score: 4.5
Dino's Gyros (1670 N. Snelling Ave., Falcon Heights, 645-8800): Stranded in the middle of a parking lot, like some spicy photomat booth, Dino's is a little Falcon Heights treasure. It looks like a movie set, and the big gyros, served flat and salad-style, are good, and benefit from a generous cover of fresh parsley. Sadly, they're skimpy with the tzatziki (extra portions cost 27 cents) and the Greek salad is dressed with a commercial guar-gum goopy Italian dressing ($3.25 for a sandwich; $4.99 for a gyros plate with fries or a salad). Score: 7.2
Falafel King (addresses above): Head and shoulders above the rest, Falafel King has really thought every aspect of the gyros through. The meat is carved off the GYROKONE for maximum moistness then grilled to seal in the flavor and add crispiness. The pita is swabbed with olive oil and grilled until it's fragrant and chewy; the tzatziki is lemony, tangy, full of fresh dill, and generously apportioned. Red-onion slices and the only ripe tomatoes I encountered perfected the sandwich. But then, to gild the lily, a little dollop of king sauce (a puree of cilantro, lemon juice, jalapeño peppers, and other secret ingredients) is placed atop the tzatziki. Like the candles on the birthday cake, it elevates the concept to a new plane. This is the Twin Cities' high-concept, top-performance, state-of-the-art supergyros ($4.95 for a sandwich; $5.95 for the king-sized sandwich, served with potatoes and an excellent lemony cucumber and tomato salad). Score: 9.2
Gardens of Salonica (19 Fifth St. N.E., Mpls., 378-0611): It seems unfair to judge this Northeast Greek gourmet spot on its least characteristic dish--this is more a spot for roast lamb followed by a dessert of poached pears in pomegranate syrup with ricotta cream--but they make a good show of it: The pita is perfectly grilled, the meat hot, and tzatziki delicious, full of fresh dill, parsley, and lemon juice, and the fried potato wedges with vinegar that come alongside are swell (gyros, with hand-cut fries, $4.95). Score: 8.9
Holy Land Deli (2513 Central Ave. N.E., Mpls., 781-2627; 1264 S. Robert St., West St. Paul, 552-9660): The gray duck among the other ducks, Holy Land's gyros is entirely idiosyncratic. They use a plain, ungrilled pita, open it, and stuff it until bursting with meat carved right off the GYROKONE, iceberg lettuce, and a tahini sauce--no tzatziki in sight, though you can order a side of it. Talk about value--the finished sandwich is roughly the size of a football, and while it wasn't my personal favorite, I'd bet anything that some very tasteful readers are right now cursing my name for defaming their all-time favorite meal. All gyros connoisseurs should try this spot, which has super-friendly counter staff, Greek music crackling from tinny speakers, and a very nice market for olives, pitas, and frozen gyros meat (about $4 a pound) so you can take a crack at the art yourself ($4.99 for a sandwich, $6.99 for gyros entrée with rice or hummus and a salad). Score: 6.4
It's Greek To Me (626 W. Lake St., Mpls., 825-9922): It's long been my opinion that this LynLake favorite does everything very well and nothing spectacularly, and this was borne out in the gyros: nice grilled pita, warm meat, good, garlic-touched tzatziki with a bit of parsley in it, tomato wedges, and thin-sliced onions; altogether very fine ($4.25 for a sandwich, $8.65 for a big platter with soup or salad). Score 7.8
Olympics Cafe (527 Hennepin Ave., Mpls., 332-1375): This feisty little no-frills place is much beloved by cab drivers and downtown computer geeks, and it's easy to see why: Huge portions for tiny prices, late hours, and high-quality merchandise--in this case crisply grilled meat, a nice warm pita, and generous (though herb-free) quantities of tzatziki--all combine to create a sort of rebellious, seat-of-their-pants, plain-speaking mecca ($3.45 for a sandwich, with frequent specials like gyros, fries, and soda for $4.99). Score: 6.9
Saffron Cafe (3501 Nicollet Ave., Mpls., 823-4442): The most disappointing of all gyros--greasy, undercooked, and the "tzatziki" seemed to be a commercial tartar-sauce preparation; it had pickles (pickles!) in it ($3.95 for a sandwich, $6.95 with salad and rice or potatoes). Score: 1.2
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