My first was at the U of I campus town in Champaign back in the ’70s. The place was Zorba’s, a dark and dingy dive that smelled of stale beer and broiling meat. It was my first gyro. Waiting in line, I saw a cylinder of ground meat rotating slowly in front of a vertical broiler. For each order, the cook would plop what looked like a small round of pizza dough onto the flat-top to warm through and become slightly toasted – pita was as unfamiliar as that revolving cylinder of meat. Then, with a long carving knife, he’d slice strip after strip of the meat, heap it into the middle of the bread, fold it, then top it with tomatoes, onions and a sour cream and cucumber sauce. The whole was wrapped tightly in paper, which I quickly learned was useful for keeping shirts clean.
The gyro seemed exotic – part and parcel of the new things I was experiencing in my first college year. The flavors, though, were as familiar as they were delicious: ground meat – mostly beef with a bit of lamb, oregano, garlic, onions, tomatoes, cucumbers in sour cream. It was the combination that was new and foreign.
These days, gyros are almost as common as hamburgers: an estimated 50,000 vertical gyros broilers are in operation throughout America; more than 100 million gyros are eaten here annually. They’re ethnic, sure, but much as pizza is. And like pizza’s popularity in the U.S., gyros’ nationwide growth in consumption since the 1970s owes as much to the New World as to its Old World heritage. In fact, that popularity originated right here in Illinois, a couple hundred miles up I-55 in the Windy City.
Gyros (pronounced YEE-rohs, not with a hard “g” sound; it’s Greek for “spin”) may have originated in Greece, but they’re also similar to Turkish döner kebabs and Middle Eastern shwarma. Food anthropologists debate about which came first. Greeks sometimes used ground meat, but more common was (and is) thinly sliced meat stacked into a cone beside a vertical grill, as are döner kebabs and schwarma. Most were made with beef or lamb, or a combination. Other meats predominated in other areas, though – pork in Cyprus, chicken elsewhere. But Chicago’s gyros titans agree that none were ever mass-produced in Europe or the Middle East. Before the 1970s, the cylinders were made in family restaurants with their own recipes, one at a time.
That’s about all those titans do agree on. All are Greek. All became wealthy in the 1970s marketing ready-made cylinders of gyros and their vertical rotisseries. The disagreement centers over who was first? Who was, essentially, the “Henry Ford” of gyros? Finger-pointing and accusations of outright lying abound from these by now mostly-retired men; twists and turns of the story, and even a now-deceased Jewish claimant by the almost-too-good-to-be-true name of John Garlic.
Regardless of who was first, all are success stories. These days, though, there’s no question who’s at the top of the heap. Kronos Gyros, founded by Chris Tomaras, is the world’s largest gyros manufacturer, capable of producing enough cylinders each day to make 600,000 sandwiches. But it’s still a family-owned operation (as are the rest of Chicago’s gyros operations), one that keeps a close eye on their products’ quality.
I go back to Zorba’s occasionally. It’s still the same dark and dingy dive as it was almost 40 years ago – a rarity now, because UIUC’s campus town has become a warren of ubiquitous fast-food chains; few locally owned restaurants or businesses survive.
When I yearn for gyros in Springfield, I head to Yanni’s in the Laketown Shopping Center on Stevenson Drive. They do it right, from the meat (which comes from Kronos), to the pita and toppings, and in generous portions, too. If you ask for extra meat, the “sandwich” becomes a knife and fork operation. The cucumber tzatziki topping is excellent, although made with sour cream instead of the more traditional lusciously thick Greek yoghurt, which can be difficult to source locally; actually more American gyros are probably topped with sour cream tzatziki than yoghurt.
I go to Yanni’s for more than gyros, though. Their motto is “Taste the Tradition.” At Yanni’s, that’s not just an empty slogan.
Yanni is John Pappas. (Yanni is the Greek word for John). Yanni is a relatively young man and Yanni’s is his first restaurant, but he has years of experience behind him.
Yanni’s father, Pete (Petros) Pappas emigrated to America in the 1960s, knowing no English but, like so many others, “looking for a better life.” He was born and raised in a small village close to Kalamata (of olive fame). When his father died, Pete, still a young man, became responsible for his numerous younger siblings. “The things he went through, how hard he worked, it’s almost impossible to realize,” says Yanni.
Much of that work took place in restaurants. And so when Pete, after staying with various relatives around America, settled in Springfield in 1972, restaurants were inevitable. He and his (non-Greek) wife, Kim, founded the Gyros Stop at 9th and North Grand, and then downtown’s Olympic House, the Sirloin House, and Dealer’s Choice.
Yanni hadn’t had thoughts of following in his parents’ footsteps, but finding a job after graduating from Blackburn College proved difficult, and he eventually turned to his roots. Purchasing a vending truck, he sold gyros first in Sherman, then at the Illinois State Fair and in Laketown Shopping Center’s parking lot. When Mel-O-Cream vacated their long-held space in 2007, Yanni’s moved into permanent digs.
The space is casual and simple. Pristine blue and white – the colors of Greece – predominate, and the respect for the Pappas’ heritage is evident. Murals painted by Yanni’s brother-in-law, John Leveque, are of the Parthenon and some of its friezes, as well as other Greek scenes.
The respect for the Pappas’ heritage is evident in the kitchen, too. These days, Pete and Kim are retired – sort of. Kim helps out most days. And Pete Pappas may say he’s retired, but he comes in to Yanni’s to make a different special dish every Wednesday: Pasticcio (a layered pasta dish with meat sauce flavored with cinnamon, and a rich egg-laced bechamel sauce) served with Greek-style peas, or Athenian-style chicken with broasted potatoes and rice pilaf, or stuffed peppers, or Avgolemono – Greece’s contribution to the pantheon of chicken soups. Avgolemono, made with rice, seasoned with lemon and thickened with egg, is one of the world’s great soups, right up there with Mexico’s tortilla soup, Jewish Matzo ball soup, and classic American chicken and noodle. On Fridays, Pete is in the kitchen making mousaka – probably the best-known Greek specialty: a layered dish of eggplant, cinnamon-spiked meat sauce and egg-enriched béchamel. It’s served with Greek-style green beans.
There are treasures on the every-day menu too. (I have to admit that I’ve not tried the non-Greek items on the menu, such as Italian beef, Philly steak or grilled chicken.)
The Greek fries are hand-cut, skin-on, sprinkled with oregano, lemon and sea salt. In a world awash with mediocre why-bother fries, these are worth the calories. Dolmades (stuffed grape leaves) are found throughout the Eastern Mediterranean. They range from those simply stuffed with rice, to complex versions filled with meat, pine nuts, herbs and currants as well as the rice. They may be served hot or cold. Yanni’s are made in-house, filled with meat and rice, and served warm in a pool of chicken-based lemon sauce similar to avgolemono with the addition of dill and mint; priced at $1 apiece, they’re a delicious bargain.
The Pappas family keeps urging Pete to take it easy – clearly not an easy task. But Yanni stays close by his father’s side, helping him, and learning to make his dad’s specialties – for the benefit of his customers, but also to pass on the Pappas heritage to the next generation.
Contact Julianne Glatz at firstname.lastname@example.org.