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Gyro and Souvlaki:

The Changing Face of an Open-Faced Sandwich

Ask any American to mention the first Greek food item that comes to mind and their answer is almost always gyro.  Seems everywhere you turn now, gyro is popping up on the menu, from your typical Greek-owned restaurant or diner all the way down to some more unexpected places, like the Asian-owned delis of Georgetown.  But what about the souvlaki, the gyro’s often overlooked cousin?  While not making the transition to the popular American menu or its collective consciousness, the souvlaki remains just as much a Greek fast food delicacy as the gyro.  So let’s take time to celebrate the two most popular Greek fast food sandwiches, the gyro and the souvlaki. 

Both the gyro and the souvlaki are perhaps the ultimate in fast food perfection.  Long before “wraps” or “twisters,” there was the gyro and souvlaki, serving as the most convenient meal-on-the-go.  It’s simple really— take a healthy portion of meat, the makings of a decent salad, complete with dressing, and wrap it up in a single piece of bread.  Now the souvlaki is traditionally served with feta cheese, while the gyro is not.  Why is that?  Is there something about the beef and lamb mixture of gyro that makes it good enough to serve without feta?  We don’t think there’s a real answer to this question.  Ask any Greek restaurant owner or Greek festival volunteer and they won’t be able to tell you the real reason for the distinction.  They’ll tell you that that’s the way it’s always been.


The widening appeal of the gyro in this country has led to it being served from every diner to deli in most metropolitan areas.  This has led to more and more bad gyro experiences in this country than ever before.  The gyro gets it name from the spinning motion of the meat on the cone.  More than a few restaurants seem to forget this origin and serve gyro that comes in either as a gyroloaf or worse, pre-sliced, like bacon.  The fact that gyro makers in this country would even have this as an option is sad.  The preformed meat cone is bad enough.  In Greece, for reasons we won’t get into, the cone doesn’t come looking so perfectly shaped – it’s shaped more like a spool of kite string after it’s been wrapped up by a six-year old. 

Speaking of gyro makers, what’s the deal with the girl on the gyro poster?  You know the girl --the Barbie doll looking blonde girl who is so obviously not Greek and has never eaten anything close to a gyro in her life.         

Now what is it about people in this country not being able to correctly pronounce “gyro?”  It’s not /jI-rO/, like gyroscope, it’s /yE-rO/.  We remember one time when one of us was taking a carry out order over the phone back when our parents used to own a restaurant.  The man on the other end ordered what at the time was thought to be three hero sandwiches.  The customer was asked if he wanted lettuce, tomato, mayonnaise, and oil and vinegar, the standard fixings for an Italian Hero sandwich.  The guy agreed that this would be a good idea.  The customer came to pick up his order a few minutes later, expecting to find three gyro sandwiches.  The first time an American actually pronounced “gyro” correctly so that it rhymes with “hero,” ended up costing the customer a few extra minutes to correct our mistake and ended up in us having a pretty big lunch of three hero sandwiches.  Sure it was our fault for taking the order the wrong, but any guy who’d want mayonnaise on a gyro isn’t completely blameless. 

Now the souvlaki can’t be mistaken for any other sandwich, except perhaps for a gyro.  But there are variations when it comes to souvlaki.  There is the traditional souvlaki on a stick.  That’s all you get, chunks of meat, no lettuce, no tzatziki.  There isn’t any possible way you can make this into a sandwich, because if you do get bread with this, it’s that French bread knock-off that comes in the huge rings that you buy at the Greek import store.  Of course lately, there has been a change in the menu, even among Greek restaurants.  This change that we’re talking about is the introduction of the chicken souvlaki.  When health consciousness and dietary restrictions hit a Greek menu, there can only be trouble.  Souvlaki is pork, period.  It’s not chicken.  Greeks eat their chicken one way, whole, with the bones still in it and the skin still on it.  What’s next, turkey souvlaki?  Greeks eat their turkey one way… they don’t.  (Admit it, many of you grew up with lamb on Thanksgiving until you were old enough to do your own food shopping for the holiday.)    

Speaking of the “Westernization” of Greek culture, the gyro and souvlaki have been disturbingly affected by the same phenomena that has led to techno beats in our music, English words replacing perfectly good and more descriptive Greek words in our vocabulary, and to islands like Mykonos resembling the stores of Tyson's Corner mall.  The last time we were in Greece we started noticing that even the most traditional mom-and-pop gyro and souvlaki stands were starting to put the oddest thing in the middle of the sandwich…  French fries.  What the heck is that?  It was like someone decided to take all the makings of a gyro or souvlaki platter and cram them into a sandwich.  It’s like when you go to Wrapworks or any other “hip” wrap place and find rice or mashed potatoes being thrown into a tortilla along with the meat and traditional sandwich vegetables, or when you see people putting potato chips on an Italian Hero sandwich.  The McDLT effect of hot meat in a cool bed of lettuce, tomato, onion and tzatziki is absolutely ruined by throwing in hot oily French fries into the mix.  Not only does the sandwich suffer, but think about the French fries themselves, virtually becoming patates sto fourno, in the steamy envelope of a pita sandwich.  It got to the point where we just started asking for the French fries on the side.

So next time you’re in the mood for a gyro sandwich, head to a Greek-owned restaurant where you can see the gyro cone spinning, and ask the friendly Greek owner or employee for a gyro.  Remember if it’s not on a cone, leave it alone.  Pronounce it correctly and ask for the works, including onion, and the owner may just throw a little extra meat or sauce on there as well.  If it’s souvlaki you want, and if they give you a choice, ask for the original “other white meat” and know that this is actually the healthiest way to get pork in a sandwich.  Kali sas oreksi. 

Read past feature articles.