There’s no particular reason that I haven’t ever eaten much Greek food. I mean in a sense I’ve been eating Greek food my whole life, if you consider that many diners in the area have been Greek owned for years, and I’ve eaten more meals in diners than you can count.
But if the food in question is souvlaki, spanakopita, dolmas or moussaka, then I have to admit, I’ve eaten little to none of it in all my years on Earth. Even baklava, that rich, gooey, decadent dessert, I had somehow never tried until a couple of years ago.
And gyros. Living in the middle of the Great Melting Pot, having made many visits to New York where every other corner is redolent with the aromas of spit-roasted meats, somehow until last month I had never had a gyro (don’t call it a jye-row.) Now seemed like as good a time as any to change that.
The decision to go Greek came in part because of my curiosity about Pi Greek American Grill (3815 Crosswicks Hamilton Square Road, Hamilton; 609-438-9941; facebook.com/pipitapizza), which opened in May in Deerpath Pavilion, site of the lost, lamented Harry’s Army Navy. I had heard that the food was good, but also that the restaurant had a bit of an identity crisis.
And it’s true that Pi can be confusing for first-time visitors. For one thing, you could be forgiven for thinking that the restaurant is called Pi Pita Pizza, inasmuch as that is what the sign reads on the exterior. That was the name, but it has been renamed since opening.
When you walk into the small, functional restaurant, the first thing you see is an assortment of thin-crust pizzas on the counter. On the wall is a large menu featuring an assortment of Greek dishes, but it is an abridged list of the full menu, which can only be found on the tabletops. Even then, the menu is white letters all caps on a black background with all the words pushed together in strange ways. It’s like trying to read an eyechart.
It’s worth getting past this. Eventually you’ll figure out that in addition to pizza, this family-run restaurant features a range of Greek favorites, including souvlaki, moussaka, pastitsio (AKA Greek lasagna) and falafel. On a trio of spits behind the counter are the pork, chicken, and beef/lamb mix they serve on their gyros.
I ordered the pork gyro special, which included french fries and a fountain drink for $8. The gyro was enormous, served wrapped in foil paper as is the tradition, dressed with onions, tomatoes and a dollop of house-made tzatziki. The serving of french fries was also quite large.
I wasn’t sure I wanted pork—usually when I’m trying something at several places, I like to get the same thing at each stop so I’m comparing, well, beef/lamb gyros to beef/lamb gyros. But the cashier, who is also the owner, informed me that the pork was back on the menu after an absence, apparently due to popular demand, so I went for it.
It was good. The hot pork was not super moist, but that also means it wasn’t greasy, and it was plenty tender. It was very peppery, but I happen to love black pepper, so it was right up my alley. The tzatziki added a gentle garlicky counterpunch. I perceived less of a vinegar kick than I would at the next two places I visited. The standard-issue fries were also treated with a healthy dose of black pepper.
Where this gyro really won me over was the pita. It was a perfect combination of fresh-soft and toasty-crispy. I would have happily eaten it by itself. For dipping my fries, I asked for a serving of the spicy tzatziki that comes on their “fire gyro.” The owner provided a generous cup of it with a smile, and later asked me how I liked it (it was good).
The next day I stopped into Mikonos (50 Scotch Road, Ewing; 609-883-9333; mikonosrestaurant.biz), which opened in 2011 and which a lot of people still think of as the old Stewart’s Root Beer. The interior of the sit-down restaurant is decidedly blue and white, the colors of the Green flag.
I ordered the lamb and beef gyro ($10), which as at Pi came with a side of peppery french fries. The Mikonos gyro had the most pronounced vinegar presence of the dishes I was served; for a moment I had the feeling I was eating an Italian hoagie. The ground, spit-roasted meat was extremely tender and tasty.
At Mikonos they put the tzatziki on first, so that you don’t encounter it until you are partway through your sandwich. As was the case at Pi, the gyro was heavily seasoned with black pepper. The pita was again fresh and pillowy soft, nicely toasted. If forced to pick, I would probably say I preferred the meat at Mikonos and the pita at Pi, but I wouldn’t drive a long way to eat at one if I were already near the other.
By the way: if you’re at Mikonos and suddenly you see the server light a dish on fire before extinguishing it with a squeeze of lemon juice and delivering it to a table nearby, you’ve just seen saganaki ($8), or kefalograviera cheese sautéed before it is flambéed tableside. A conversation starter for sure.
I capped off my three-day Greek extravaganza by stopping in at The Simple Greek (957 Route 33, Hamilton; 609-890-4976; thesimplegreek.com), a new chain restaurant which opened in September. The Simple Greek has been described as “the Greek Chipotle,” which is apt for sure.
The concept is simple: you order either a bowl ($8.95—with rice, salad or lentils) or a pita ($6.95), which you can then personalize with a protein (traditional gyro, chicken gyro, grilled steak or grilled chicken), sauce (including tzatziki and Greek dressing) and a variety of other ingredients (including shredded lettuce, tomatoes, roasted red peppers, pepperoncini and garbanzos). As a clerk makes your bowl or pita, you can choose exactly which ingredients you want put inside.
I chose the traditional gyro with tzatziki and village salad (tomatoes, cucumbers and onions in vinegar). French fries ($2.55) are a la carte; unlike the other restaurants, The Simple Greek serves hand-cut, Boardwalk-style fries.
The gyro was pretty good, although not at the standard of the other two restaurants. The meat had less flavor and less texture, and the onions in the village salad were so strong I had to pick them out. The pita was good, but not toasted, and not as pillowy soft as the others.
That said, The Simple Greek’s fries were my favorite, and I think a lot of people will enjoy the flexibility it offers in terms of how your meal is made.
I also ordered baklava to go at all three restaurants, since there was no way I was eating it there after my enormous lunches.
Mikonos ($6) had by far the tallest and the moistest of the three; a sweet syrup continuously oozed from it. Being so moist it was also the least crispy, although the many layers of phyllo still managed to provide that satisfying textural juxtaposition of flaky crust, crunch nuts and sugary liquid.
Pi Greek American Grill’s version ($5) was not as tall or as moist. Though it was plenty sweet, it was probably the least sweet of the three, and came with the most nuts.
The Simple Greek’s take ($2.95) had the fewest layers of the three I would say, and was also by far the least expensive. It was the driest of the three, but still tasty.
After three days of gyros, I didn’t need to eat again for a week. But I enjoyed all my meals quite a bit. It’s safe to say it won’t be 46 years, or even 46 days, before I have another one.