Today the Czar celebrates on of the best things to wolf down while drinking an ice-cold cola and watching a mid-1980s action film: the gyros.
The Czar suspects many Americans still don’t know what this is. Basically, it’s shaved lamb meat dumped onto a soft pita bread, and topped with tomatoes, sliced onion, and tzatziki sauce. And you fold it up like a taco and stuff it progressively into your mouth until you choke on the onion.
The Czar lived in the Cragin neighborhood of Chicago for decades, down the street from a Greek Orthodox church that served as the center of a little Greektown. Although Greektown is a Chicago neighborhood just west of the Loop, the enclave in which the Czar lived probably had a bigger, more authentic Greek population for a long time. And that’s where he learned to love the sandwich (unlike a hot dog, a gyros probably is a sandwich).
You might ask, “Is it gyros or gyro? How do you pronounce it, actually?” Both gyro and gyros are acceptable because the word is basically made up. The Czar uses gyros, which he pronounces “year-roes,” similar to the way the old cranks did in that neighborhood. But gyro is pretty common, too, often as a singular noun.
When the Czar says it’s “made up,” he means that the word can be found in Greek today, but that came back to Greek from American Greek. In Greece, the sandwich was ντονέρ, which was similar to a gyros. When it came to America, it was pronounced called a doner. However, the meat inside the pita bread was cooked on a rotating spit, or a γύρος (yu-ros). Eventually, metonomy being what it is, the sandwich began to be called a gyros here in the States, and doner went away. As its popularity soared here, it went back to Greece, where the word gyros replaced the original name doner.
Another point: the sauce you throw on it is spelled tzatziki, which you can buy in stores now. But it’s not that hard to make your own: it’s basically plain greek yogurt, cucumber, garlic, and olive oil whipped together. And tzatziki, as we heard it, is pronounced a bit like “dzhajiki.” You know, in case you want to sound authentic.
Let’s talk about the meat. In Chicago, the only gyros meat you eat must be made by Kronos Foods, or you’re probably getting heavily-garlic-infused cat. Chicagoans always look for the word KRONOS prominently displayed in a window or on a wall. This isn’t an endorsement of this particular company, by the way—it’s more a safe way to avoid worms.
Alas, there’s no single recipe for gyros meat. Some are lamb, some are beef, and some are a mixture of both. These meats are packed into a weird extruded tube shape, which then hang vertically so that the heat lamp under which it cooks melts off the grease. When you order the gyros, the unhappy dude behind the counter grabs a pita, grabs a knife, and slices the extruded goo right onto your pita.
Then come the toppings. The Czar cares little for tomatoes, but the classic gyro calls for them. Also, far too much onion is dumped on the pile, and finally a spoonful of sauce is whapped on top of this. This is wrapped in wax paper (you hope, because gyros grease will eat through just about anything else in seconds), put into a paper bag, and handed to you.
You can eat it rolled up like a burrito or folded like a taco; that’s up to you. But the blend of spices, meats, and sting of the onion balanced by the soft taste of the sauce—man, that’s good. If you order the platter, or special, or combo, or whatever this particular outlets calls it, you get a little extra meat and a mass of french fries thrown on the side.
Now, bring this home, ensuring the car ride is long enough to stink up your vehicle for a couple of days, with the divine aromas of grease, garlic, and onion soaking into every porous surface in your interior. Get home, grab a cold beverage, and fire up the VHS player to watch Invasion USA or any Jackie Chan movie. Sit back, force feed yourself that gyro, and enjoy.