Gyro Scoop: Meaty Middle Eastern pleasures abound on South Grand

Sep 23, 2009 at 4:00 am

The gyro at South Grand Gyro Express is served wrapped in paper so that you can eat it while you walk down the street or, God help us, drive back to your office. But I don't see how either is possible unless your hands are as big as dinner plates and you wear some kind of trough around your waist to catch all of the meat falling from the sandwich. Soft, lightly chewy pita bread is piled high with beef and lamb thinly sliced from the vertical spit whose continuous slow spinning gives the gyro its name — from the Greek verb for "to turn" — as well as lettuce, tomato, cucumber, onion, crumbled feta and a tart yogurt-cucumber sauce. Eating it with a fork and knife is difficult enough.

South Grand Gyro Express opened in March, in Carondelet, just south of the intersection of South Grand Boulevard and Bates Avenue. It occupies a postage stamp of a storefront, the single dining room seating about twenty. The décor is minimal, but the orange walls and a soundtrack of contemporary Middle Eastern music give the space a spark of life. The front-of-house staff numbers exactly one, apparently, so if no one greets you upon entering, don't freak out. Have a seat.

The gyro is very good, and at $4.99, a steal to boot. The meat has that distinctive blend of beef's richness, lamb's mild gaminess and richly warming spices, the cheese and sauce add tang, and the crisp vegetables provide textural contrast. The only disappointment is the chunks of pale, flavorless tomato. As anyone who has staggered into a kabob shop in the UK after the pubs have closed can attest, the gyro is a particularly delicious form of fast food, so it isn't surprising that South Grand Gyro Express offers — and most diners I saw ordered — fries with its gyro for an extra $1.50. These have the generic flavor I associate with run-of-the-mill, up-from-frozen fries, but they are served hot and crisp and go well with the gyro's sauce.

As you might expect at a restaurant named South Grand Gyro Express, gyros are the featured dish: The gyro sandwich and three variations are the first four entrées listed in the menu, and a sign on the sidewalk outside the restaurant promotes the $4.99 gyro. Don't just skim over the rest of the menu, though: The selection of other dishes, drawn mainly from Afghani and Persian cuisine, might be modest in scope, but do contain several tasty surprises.

Roughly speaking, the menu is divided into pita "sandwiches," kabobs and stews. From the sandwich category, I tried the basic gyro I've already described as well as a falafel sandwich. The latter serves four of the chickpea fritters wrapped in pita bread with the same accompaniments as the gyro. Though I like falafel, I'm wary of ordering them — too often they are overcooked, rendering them mealy or even dry. These, however, were perfectly moist and brightly spiced, the flavor clearly discernible among the sandwich's many other ingredients.

Basic meat kabobs are rarely my first or even second choice at any restaurant, but on multiple occasions at South Grand Gyro Express I had to scramble to make a third or fourth choice. More on why I was scrambling later. Suffice to say, the kabobs I tried provided simple pleasures: The beef shami kabob is ground beef (primarily) and lamb formed into a long, narrow strip around a skewer and then grilled. The resulting kabob is mildly spicy and has a texture something like a sausage patty. It's served — as is nearly every non-sandwich dish here — with white basmati rice. I preferred the basic chicken kabob: The meat was very tender, with spices and a slight citric note that matched the strong char note of its grilling.

Surprisingly, for such an avowed carnivore as myself, my favorite dishes were vegetable-based. A chalow, or stew, of eggplant and tomato matched the acidic bite of its two main ingredients with a complex, alchemical spicing reminiscent of the regal cuisine of India's north. A drizzle of yogurt sauce added a pleasingly sour note.

Two non-meat appetizers also stood out: An order of hummus, topped with a pool of olive oil, had much more kick than I expected, the heat lingering pleasantly well into my entrée. As for the sambusas, well, the best way I can express my love for the sambusa is to note that I ordered them on two different visits to the restaurant. Had I ordered them on my very first visit here, I probably would have ordered them on every subsequent visit. These are pieces of pita bread stuffed with a purée of spiced potato and onion and then fried, resulting in a crisp, browned exterior and an interior that literally oozes with rich, spicy, lightly herby flavor.

When I first ordered the sambusas they were served with a very spicy chutney, its flavor bright, something like a really good salsa verde. (Though the chutney was beige in color.) When the sambusas were gone, I kept the chutney for my fries. On another visit I asked for an order of the sambusas to go. When I returned home I found that they had been packaged with another sauce entirely: a deep red concoction that was hot and vinegary. Frankly, it tasted a lot like Buffalo sauce. The sambusas, however, remained awesome.

Such inconsistencies aren't surprising at a very small, relatively new restaurant, and I usually don't make a big deal out of them, but there was a larger and more frustrating inconsistency at South Grand Gyro Express. Several times I ordered a braised or stewed dish only to be told that it was still cooking or hadn't been made at all. (Hence, my having to order the kabobs.) On the one hand, I understand the practical reasons for not incurring wasteful food costs. On the other hand, as a diner, I found these dishes — karahi, a sort of stew of chicken, beef or lamb; lamb biryani, and a lamb shank cooked in bean sauce — the most intriguing on the menu.

On one occasion I was able to order chicken biryani, a classic dish of seasoned rice with (in this case) peas and chickpeas, served with a yogurt sauce to add as desired. While the chicken was dry, the rice itself was fantastic, with an intoxicating blend of spices. I tried and failed to tease out individual flavors, but I'd venture there was turmeric, cumin and coriander, at least.

Though this review is now written, published and in your hands, I haven't given up on trying those other dishes. Until then, I'll be back for another gyro — as many as I need before I can carry one in my hands. Or at least just lift from the plate.