Debt crisis notwithstanding, Greece had something I wanted. Something meaty, greasy, flavorful and shredded from a rotating slab. You guessed it: gyro.
Actually, let me rewind and trace the antecedents of this particular craving. It began with the Philadelphia City Paper’s review of the restaurant Opa in which the writer mentions, almost in passing, the dessert of loukoumades, or fried dough, served with a Greek version of Nutella, called Merenda. Given my Nutella obsession, I was intrigued and began searching for where to buy this unknown treat. Online, of course, but there was something unsatisfying about that option (never mind the exorbitant shipping that felt overly decadent). I posted on Chowhound’s Philadelphia board about where to find it*, which lead to an active discussion of favorite Greek restaurants in Philly and its environs. All this talk of Greek food spurred a mad craving for a gyro, that delicious combination of sliced spit-roasted lamb, tomatoes, tzatziki and pita. Like a toga clad Athenian, I carried the torch of my desire for street food to Olympic Gyro in the Reading Terminal Market.
We arrived at the counter just as the Market was closing on a Sunday. While there were scads of people on line at Carmen’s Famous Hoagies & Cheesesteaks, Olympic Gyro was empty, except for the pair working there.
I ordered my gyro–no onions–and some grape leaves for an appetizer. Little bundles of delicately spiced rice, wet and chewy with a subtle lemony brine flavor, the grape leaves were quite good, and looked lovely even served on styrofoam. Considering that they were merely a warm-up, the fact that six came in the order was a little much, but my companion helped me finish them.
Then, the main event: shirred meat, pillowed between the folds of soft, warm pita. Yogurt dressing caressing the tomatoes, which rounded out the filling. My companion, he of sporadic carnivorousness, handed me back my sandwich after he took a subdued bite. Given that he hadn’t eaten all day, I offered him another taste and watched as nearly a quarter of my gyro disappeared into his maw. Forget the maxim about Greeks and gifts and save your wariness for gyro-tasting vegetarians. I wondered about the Greek salad, a longtime favorite of mine, and drooled a bit when another diner got a huge spinach pie to go. Another time, I suppose, since I was already sated on my meat binge.
Recommended: figuring out how Olympic Gyro can use the 5 rings symbol without getting in trouble with the IOC (there was a Minneapolis band called the Olympic Hopefuls back in the day who actually had to change their name to the Hopefuls or risk being sued by the Olympics); grape leaves; gyro–but, please, not the chicken kind!
* the answer is N&E Agora, 917 Tyson Ave, in Northeast Philadelphia, a relatively charm-free store in a desolate strip mall. Look beyond the soda and chips sold in the front and you’ll find, however, a treasure trove of Greek treats. A pickle-jar sized bottle of capers! Imported honey! Sheafs of dried oregano tied in bundles! and, like the holy grail, merenda.
Are you wondering how Merenda stacks up against Nutella?
* Nutella: Thicker, intense chocolate flavor.
* Merenda: Softer texture, with hazelnut flavor predominant
The winner? Me, because now I have two jars of chocolate hazelnut paste.