Gyros: Not the Big Mac of Greek Food Anymore? At Yamas in Bethesda, the sandwich goes back to its roots

Grecian Formula: Yamas chef Mediha Keler follows the Greek tradition of preparing gyro towers with freshly sliced meats.
Photo by Darrow Montgomery

The gyro sitting before me like a fallen log at Zorba’s Café looks like every other one I’ve eaten. It’s the same as you’ll find in Houston, the same as you’ll find in New York, the same as you’ll find in any other town where the widely mispronounced sandwich (all together now: yee-roh) can be had: Strips of processed meat are lightly coated in tzatziki, layered in a warmed pita, and draped with shredded lettuce, slivers of onion, and a couple of hot-house tomato slices. The gyro has become the Big Mac of Greek food.

You can largely thank Chicago-based Kronos Foods for all that homogeneity. The company produces those compressed meat cones that you regularly see spinning on Greek deli rotisseries from here to San Diego. Since 1975, Kronos has taken the pain out of producing gyro meat. A restaurant manager can simply order a 10-, 20-, or 35-pound cone from Kronos and have the cylinder of frozen meat shipped straight from an Illinois factory. Cost-conscious owners save countless hours of labor. And you, in all likelihood, save cash at the register.

But the cone does come with a hidden cost: flavor and texture. The meat from a Kronos gyro cone sports a soft, almost mushy texture, which reminds me more of weisswurst than freshly sliced beef and lamb. The rotisserie broiler that cooks the cones ostensibly adds char to the meat, as does a quick trip to the griddle before stuffing the gyro strips into a pita. But neither cooking technique can cover up the essential squishiness of this processed meatloaf. What’s more, the loaf’s dominant flavors are salt, oregano, beef, and more salt, with only the slightest hint of gamey lamb.

Tony Alexis likes to call Kronos cones “mystery meat.”

Alexis is the co-owner of Yamas Mediterranean Grill in Bethesda. He knows all about Kronos and its meatloaf cones: He used to buy them when he owned his last place, Tony’s Family Restaurant, some 15 years ago in Franklin Farm in western Fairfax County.

Calling up Kronos, Alexis says, is standard operating procedure for practically everyone who sells gyros. “It’s simply a reflection of business,” he tells me. “When you get into business, you’re looking to profit, and doing the sure thing is more profitable. It’s the safer way.” Kronos, he adds, is deeply ingrained in the Greek-American restaurant community: Your competitors all buy from the company, so why wouldn’t you? As Alexis says, “They are not going to reinvent the wheel.”

And yet: Tony Alexis is trying to reinvent the wheel at Yamas, his first restaurant since retiring from the hospitality business 15 years ago.

Actually, come to think of it, Alexis is not reinventing anything. He’s trying to reconnect the gyro to its mother country, where the meat often comes from freshly slaughtered animals. If a butcher doesn’t have lamb one day, a restaurant will serve chicken gyros instead. Greek food culture, in other words, has not fully embraced the industrial ways of the West—at least not in the small village near Sparta where Alexis’ family has its roots.

Alexis says his friends in the restaurant business raised some eyebrows when he told them he was weaning himself off Kronos. His plan is to produce all his gyro meat in-house at Yamas, sourcing his beef and lamb from producers who raise their animals naturally, free from restrictive cages and without antibiotics and other questionable feed additives. “They said, ‘You’re crazy,’” he recalls. “‘Why would you want to go through all that effort for a gyro?’”

Alexis’ decision can be traced to a quotidian event that often changes the lives of the people who experience it: childbirth. When Alexis and his wife, Yamas co-owner Kelly Alexis, became parents of two young children, Dad was forced to think about what his kids were eating. The more Alexis read about ground beef manufacturers, and their willingness to put American consumers at risk with irradiated and ammonia-injected products, the more he wanted to change the way he bought his gyro meat.

That simple decision translated into a lot of work. These days, the owner routinely presses his meat distributors for the names of farms so that he can contact the people who actually raise the cows and lambs and chickens. If a distributor doesn’t know the information, Alexis moves on to the next one. You can see why Alexis, in his previous restaurant existence, just called Kronos.

Let me be clear here: Alexis is not trying to introduce the Greek gyro to the Washington market. The sandwich has a complicated history. The gyro as we know it is likely derived from the Turkish döner kebab, in which fresh lamb meat is cooked slowly on a spit. (Turkey’s traditional rivals in Greece, naturally, argue that the general concept of gyros dates back to Alexander the Great, whose soldiers skewered meat on swords and cooked it over fire). Whatever the history, the gyro as prepared in Greece is different than the American version: Pork, chicken, or lamb are the preferred meats. Fries are regularly stuffed into the pita.

The Greek-American gyro came along much later, probably in the 1960s in Chicago, and zeroed in on America’s love for beef. Those ubiquitous Kronos cones lean heavily on ground beef, downplaying the gamey-ness of lamb in what’s probably a concession to the American palate. Alexis’ sandwich, too, conforms to the stateside taste in gyros: The meat filling breaks down to 80 percent beef, 20 percent lamb.

The difference is in the preparation. Every morning, Yamas chef Mediha Keler arrives early to prepare the gyro rotisseries. She’ll take the slices of beef and lamb that have been marinating in lemon juice, olive oil, oregano, cilantro, tarragon, mint, garlic, and other spices and start building her towers. She makes two to three rotisseries a day, each between 20 and 25 pounds. It takes about an hour for Keler to carefully layer one slice of meat after another until the tower is complete. She will then start butchering, trimming, and slicing the cuts of beef and lamb for the marinade; the slices will marinate at least overnight, and often longer, to help break down the tough muscles.

You can see the difference as soon as your gyro arrives at the table, wrapped in foil and lounging on a rectangular plate. The strips of meat are not uniform in any way. They are, in fact, not even strips; they’re irregular chunks and bits and slices, all browned and charred from their endless trips around the rotisserie. This stuff looks like fresh meat from a grill, not gyro Spam from a can. The flavor is deeply satisfying—savory, cool on the palate from all those herbs, and spiked with just enough lamb to give you the gamey-ness you want. You’ve likely never had a gyro like this.

The sandwich preparation even strays from the norm: Rather than tossing sliced white onions into the pita, the Yamas kitchen sprinkles slivers of red onion, which adds more pungency to the bite. You might even notice something unusual about the pita: It’s denser than the standard gyro bread. It provides a firm chewiness that stands up to the aggressive ingredients, not only the meat but also the red onion, the Romaine and iceberg lettuces, the beefsteak tomato, and the fresh, house-made tzatziki, which can be applied too thickly, sometimes overwhelming this otherwise terrific sandwich.

Even if the Yamas gyro ($6.95 each) is not Greek in its combination of meats, you can experience it the Greek way. For an additional 60 cents, the kitchen will throw a handful of french fries into the pita. When I talked to Alexis on the phone, he encouraged me to try it. The way he talked about the preparation, as an entire meal in one hand-held bite, it reminded me of the Steel City classic, the Primanti Brothers sandwich in which fries and cole slaw are thrown on top. How could I not experience this?

One bite into the fries-spiked gyro, and I knew I had made a mistake. The starch and the fry flavor dominated the sandwich, relegating all that carefully sourced and prepared meat to second-class status. The fries were a bully, and I tossed them from the premises immediately. If I wanted a sandwich in which the meat was treated this poorly, I’d go to some other Greek restaurant—just about every other Greek restaurant, in fact.

Yamas Mediterranean Grill, 4806 Rugby Ave., Bethesda, (301) 312-8384.

Eatery tips? Food pursuits? Send suggestions to hungry@washingtoncitypaper.com. Or call (202) 332-2100, x 221.

Our Readers Say

Sounds great! But what about the tzatziki? American style sour cream based, or Greek standard strained yogurt?
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