There are multiple countries in which a meal made of strips of roast lamb and beef anointed with yogurt and cucumber tzatziki sauce and wrapped with soft, unleavened pita bread is a staple on the order of the hamburger in America. It doesn't take more than a taste of the incarnation of the sandwich to be found at Gyro Gyros to understand the nation-spanning appeal of this classic combination. The basic gyro (which takes its name from the Greek word guros, meaning a turning, such as on a spit) features tender slices of meat made fragrant by slow roasting, a fragrance that's considerably enhanced by julienne raw onions whose crunch is an essential contrast to the texture of the meat. Add a surfeit of tzatziki sauce redolent with garlic, and whose liquidity indicates a base of the made-in-house yogurt that certifies the authenticity of a "real" Middle Eastern cafe, and you have bliss. Tzatziki is a condiment that suffers when afflicted by thickness; Gyro Gyros' tzatziki is the runny, drippy real deal that mandates you hold your sandwich over the accompanying fries so that not one precious drop will be wasted.
While Gyro Gyros' basic gyro is rigidly, delightfully traditional, the restaurant also offers a gyro supreme that manages to be oddly embellished without losing its appeal. Two incongruous, yet compatible, additions make this gyro "supreme": a stalk of steamed broccoli and a slice of American cheese. While the juxtaposition of broccoli with strips of tender meat is more common in a Far Eastern context, it works just as well in a Middle Eastern setting -- and cheese on a sandwich is almost mandatory for any American who doesn't keep kosher. The gyro supreme is a concept as endearing as it is innovative.
Endearing and innovative might well be the watchwords for Gyro Gyros, a lower Westheimer institution that has endured the many morphings of the area that surrounds it with few changes. Over the last decade, an unremarkable assortment of Mexican dishes was quietly dropped from the menu to concentrate on Middle Eastern specialties, the massive oak tree that grows through the floor and roof of the front porch has no doubt added an inch or two to its considerable girth and while prices have surely suffered a few increases along the way, those increases have never been consequential enough to threaten Gyro Gyros' reputation as a place where fresh, filling fare -- whose spicing reflects the crossroads of cultures that is owner Humayun Shah Khan's native Pakistan -- is available at prices within reach of even those whose lifestyles are more interesting than they are financially stable.
You're likely to run across a welter of interesting folks, financially stable or otherwise, on Gyro Gyros' shaded porch. The restaurant's location immediately next to a pair of tattoo and piercing parlors, and within walking distance of maybe half a dozen more, means that if you tune into a conversation at the neighboring picnic table you might learn the answers to questions about body decoration and body piercing that most people would never have thought to ask. Lower Westheimer remains one of Houston's most reliably eccentric areas, and the show seen from the porch of Gyro Gyros can be worth of the price of a meal in itself. If you're not careful, though, Khan's food will distract you from the passing carnival. It has the distinct ability to fixate your attention on what fills your plate.
The chicken sandwich, served gyro-style, is another successful departure from gyro orthodoxy. While the sandwich is based on standard-issue skinless, boneless chicken breast, the bird has been roasted slowly enough that the all-too-frequent dryness of chicken breast is conspicuous by its absence; there's also substantive proof here that if anything can make America's favorite health protein exciting, it's tzatziki. The French fries that accompany the various incarnations of gyros are another Americanization that help naturalize these Middle Eastern immigrants; in the land of freezer fries, the hand-cut fry is king. Fries made from potatoes that have never been frozen are an increasingly rare commodity, which makes eating these oil-tanned and chewy slivers of spud all the more enjoyable. Of course, taking the old-fashioned approach ensures a lack of uniformity that -- if the vast majority of the order is fried to perfection, which these inevitably are -- results in a few small potato splinters that are overdone, but still irresistible.
While the gyros served at Gyro Gyros will seem familiar to anyone who hails from a region that stretches from the Kashmir to Cairo to the Balkans, Gyro Gyros' side orders and vegetarian entrees tend toward a regionalism that's even more broadly international. Since the medieval days of the Spice Route from Asia to Europe, Humayun Shah Khan's homeland has been a crossroads. In Khan's imaginative hands, the memories of those converging cultures results in such effective, far-ranging entrees as a vegetarian platter that combines a very Oriental, soy-sauced stir-fry of broccoli, cauliflower, carrot strips, onions and mushrooms with a carroty basmati rice whose heritage is obviously of the Indian subcontinent and a well-onioned and feta-cheesed spinach paneer of the sort claimed as a native dish by every land of the eastern Mediterranean.
Arrayed around this multinational trio are dolmas and falafel that are nominally of the sort found on Lebanese mezze trays. But here they reveal an unusual enthusiasm for imaginative spicing. A case in point are the dolmas; I've bitten into these zesty little rolls of grape leaves around spiced rice at any number of eateries over the years -- but I've never had a dolma bite me back. It was only a small and friendly nip, however, and actually quite enjoyable. Similarly surprising are the falafel balls, which look like hush puppies and whose mix of chick peas and fava beans are infused with cilantro to such a liberal degree that dipping these fried spheres in the accompanying tub of tahini is strictly optional. The menu also offers a gyro-style sandwich based on a fried falafel patty that does much to redeem my entire concept of vegetarian fare.
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Though it will never convince me to abandon red meat, I was also pleasantly surprised by my companion's spicy sabzi during a recent visit. Granted, it tasted more like a side dish than an entree, but a fragrant touch of mustard in the tomato sauce bound this melange of carrots and string beans and potatoes into something memorable. Fortunately, many of the components of Gyro Gyros' vegetable plates are also available as side dishes. The spinach paneer serves as the filling for a delightfully substantial sesame-seed laden spanakopita that I've come to consider almost mandatory alongside a gyro and fries, while the eggplant dip (identified diplomatically on the menu as both baba ghanouj and melinzana) shows that this kitchen holds garlic in the same high regard that I do. There's a similar affinity for garlic, plus olive oil, in the hummus; both it and the melinzana are served with the wedges of fresh pita that are essential to the eastern Mediterranean tradition of nibbling after dinner. You can do this while debating whether or not to indulge in the hedonistic layers of honey, almonds and phyllo dough that make up the house baklava. It's a wickedly crispy, sticky delight that almost demands coffee as a counterpoint when eaten as a dessert. But when consumed as energy food with a cooling glass of iced tea during a break from a Saturday of strolling along Westheimer, it's fuel for race-walking the boutiques that line the strip.
I can't think of another restaurant where both the French fries and the pita bread inspire me to conjugate the verb "to nosh" in as leisurely a manner as possible. But on the oak tree-impaled porch of Gyro Gyros, lingering becomes an art form, and eavesdropping is music to the ears.
Gyro Gyro's, 1536 Westheimer, 528-4655.
gyro sandwich, $3.75;
gyro supreme, $4.25;
spicy sabzi, $3.75;
vegetarian sampler, $6.45.