After a morning spent climbing the Acropolis, then walking to and through the Athens Central Market, we were famished. And being in the hometown of the gyro (pronounced yee-ro), it was definitely the first thing we wanted to eat. So just after leaving the fruit and vegetable section of the Athens Central Market, we spied a very local looking kind of eatery, and decided to plunge in and eat our first gyros. First of all, the nomenclature is a bit confusing. If you eat at a restaurant, and you ask for a souvlaki, you will often end up with an overpriced plate of sliced meat or kebab meat with greens and tatziki and get charged way above a more typically expected pita gyro or souvlaki. Do not fall prey to that tourist trick. Make sure to ask for a gyro pita and you will get the meat and fixings inside a soft pita rolled into a conical shape and it will run you just 1-3 Euro depending on location of the vendor. Gyro pitas are typically sold from small stalls, and there are hundreds of them all over Athens…
We also found that souvlaki can refer to what we otherwise know as shish kebab, chunks of meat skewered and grilled. The gyro might include the sliced meat from those vertical grilling contraptions and most often comes in lamb, but also in beef and super delicious in pork. Some places add french fries, others do don’t, most add tatziki, onions, tomatoes, flat leaf parsley and a dash of paprika or salt or other spices. The restaurant near the market was definitely not a typical tourist place. About 8 other tables were taken and not a single one of them had tourists. All of the patrons appeared to work in or around the market, and if I were to understand Greek based on the tone and looks of amusement, the whole place was a bit surprised to see three “Japanese” tourists stepping into the place. The owner/waiter didn’t speak much English, but he communicated enough so we knew exactly what to order. And he was so genuinely nice. We ended up with two different gyro pitas (lamb and pork) and a souvlaki pita with chunks of beef. The wraps were SUPERB. Absolutely delicious. It was our first real taste of Greece (not counting breakfast), and it was totally what we were hoping for. The pita was thick yet not overly doughy and it was thrown onto the grill for a few seconds on each side, yielding a slightly crunchy yet pliable wrap. The meat was grilled perfectly, and tasted like pork or lamb or beef. The tatziki was cool and refreshing, redolent with garlic, and a binder for the meat, tomatoes, onions and fries. The finishing dash of paprika added that little extra perk in flavor. Wonderful.
In addition to the three wraps, we also ordered a tomato salad (differentiated from a Greek Salad as it had no feta cheese) which arrived very cold and with a single fork full, you would have heard an audible groan if you were seated next to us. So simple, yet so utterly superb. The ingredients were the key… vine ripe and flavorful (but probably greenhouse) tomatoes, crisp cucumbers, slivers of onion, sweet green bell peppers and a ton of incredibly good greek olive oil. There was also a touch of red wine vinegar and lots of oregano. It’s hard to imagine how this salad would impress anyone so much, but the combination of excellent ingredients, highly chilled (normally chilling affects the texture of tomatoes), and the fantastic olive oil, put really big smiles on all of our faces. In ten minutes flat, we wolfed down the salad and three gyro pitas and drank 3 softdrinks/bottled water. Total damage? Roughly Euro 12 or USD18. Bravo! Eating in Greece and Turkey wasn’t necessarily going to break the bank! We would go on to have at least 3 lunches eating this way, and several meriendas for The Kid and Mrs. MM as well.
So remember this MM piece of advice. When arriving in a new city, try and head to the main market as early in your stay as possible. Eat at a (often hole in the wall) restaurant there if possible. It should set your benchmark for food quality and prices for the rest of your visit. We did this in Barcelona, Florence, Rome, Melbourne, Athens, Turkey and it definitely worked for us! I never figured out the name of the restaurant at the market, but here is a picture of their awning… I also spied several restaurants inside the market, some of them that serve the famous tripe stew in the wee hours of the morning, but I never managed to make it back to the market at 4a.m. or so… maybe next time. I had 3-4 gyro pitas during this recent trip. Mrs. MM and The Kid ate at least TWICE as many!