Although Charlotte has a large Greek-American community and dozens of restaurants owned and operated by Greek-Americans, the city lacks authentic Greek gyros (pronounced yee-ros). True, Charlotte has gyros; in fact, the gyros at Little Village Grill have been touted in this very column. But the meat used for gyro sandwiches in Charlotte is typically a cone of processed meat.
The process to form these gyro cones includes grinding raw beef and lamb trimmings with bread crumbs and seasonings. Then, under hydraulic pressure, the meat is fused into cylinders. While these processed meat gyros have their fan following, these are not what gyros are in Greece — or in some places in the U.S. In Greece, raw meat is tightly staked on a skewer and cooked on a vertical rotisserie. If the meat is lean, layers of fat are added so that as the meat cooks, the juices of the fat runs throughout the meat.
Even the owners of Charlotte restaurants that serve gyros acknowledge that what we are served here is not what is served in Greece. Greg Photopoulos, co-owner of Greek Isles, adds that many American cities with large Greek communities — Chicago, for example — offer "authentic" gyros.
The meat used in these "authentic" gyros is typically pork, but chicken and lamb can be used. Meat is shaved off per order. In some shops, a meat cylinder lasts only an hour or two. The other difference is the sauce. In Greece, three sauces are used: In Athens, tzatziki is popular (and the only sauce found in Charlotte); on Crete an aioli sauce is used; and in the north, a mustard sauce is common.
Why doesn't a city like Charlotte with a large Greek-American population have these meat gyros rather than the processed cone meat? Cindy Georgopoulos, owner of Little Village Grill, says their ownership team has discussed the idea. "But in Greece," she explains, "pork is the meat, and pork is not popular here." (Don't tell the barbecue folks that.) She adds that raw meat on the rotisserie is "not as good" because her gyro cone is already cooked. Photopoulos, on the other hand, would like to serve the authentic style gyro, but cautions about the shelf life of raw meat and North Carolina's rigorous health inspection standards.
But Bill Hardister of the Mecklenburg County Health Department, the organization that inspects restaurants to verify state standards are met, says that the state does not prohibit vertical skewers of stacked raw meat. He says that the required meat temperature must be obtained — 130 degrees for beef steak, 150 degrees for pork, and 165 degrees for chicken. Additionally, the time constraints for raw meat to be without refrigeration or heat must also be followed.
Meanwhile, other cultures that share the passion for skewered meat seem to have found a way to comply with the North Carolina health safety regulations. In Lebanon, a shawarma, spit-roasted seasoned lamb, beef or sometimes chicken, is similar to a Greek gyro. At Sultan Kabob House, a Lebanese fast casual spot in southwest Charlotte, chicken shawarmas are offered every Thursday. Mexico has tacos al pastor, a roasted pork sandwich said to have been brought to northern Mexico by Lebanese immigrants. This taco is comprised of shaved marinated pork and ancho chilies cooked on a vertical rotisserie and served on a tortilla with salsa. Tacos al pastor are available at Taqueria La Unica on Central Avenue.
If the Lebanese and Mexican eateries can offer flame-cooked rotisserie meat sandwiches, isn't it time for a serious grown-up gyro to be offered in a town that celebrates Greek culture the way we do?