Souvlaki: The Hamburger of Greece
Souvlakis are the hamburgers of
Greece. At least they were until
hamburgers arrived and then hamburgers
became the hamburgers of Greece as people flocked to McDonalds and the Greek hamburger joints that knew a good thing when they saw one. Souvlaki
shops became more scarce and fast
food places more plentiful, though you
still would not have had trouble finding a
souvlaki if you wanted
one, in the popular souvlaki shops that managed to hang on during the hamburger crisis. And many of the fast food places that served hamburgers had souvlakia too. Then came the economic crisis and suddenly Greeks did not have the kind of spending money that had before. But being Greek they still had the need to get out of their apartments for dinner at least a couple times a week. This brought back a souvlaki renaissance as restaurant owners realized the only way to stay in business was to offer something
filling and good. Suddenly psistarias (grill houses) were either opening or being converted from other types of restaurants and souvlaki became a staple again. Meanwhile the hamburger market was collapsing and McDonalds began closing left and right. (Greece is the only country in the world where McDonald's loses money. Yay!) This page will tell you all you need to know about souvlakia and includes the advice of some of Greece's most foremost souvlakia experts.
What is a Souvlaki?
Souvlaki is sort of the generic term for the whole world of souvlakia which includes gyro, kalamaki, kebab and others, It is most often meat of some sort,
beef, lamb, pork or 'unknown combination' that is
on a giant vertical rotisserie. The
souvlaki 'cook' slices off the meat as
it becomes done and puts it on a round
pita bread with lettuce, tomato,
onions, and sadziki, a
cucumber-yogurt-garlic sauce that in
my opinion is what makes souvlakis
great. This is usually called a gyro, pronounced in Greece as yee-row and mispronounced in the USA as jai-row. In some souvlaki shops the meat
is skewered hunks of meat and sometimes you can get
ground beef, which is generally known as beefteki. Souvlaki comes in wax paper which
keeps it all together and you eat it like you are peeling a banana. It can be messy but who cares? In some upscale souvlaki shops you can get chicken souvlakis
and even swordfish souvlakis. There was one souvlaki shop that during lent had kalamarakia souvlakia since squid is a bloodless creature which is the only meat you can eat during lent. It went out of business but not because of that.
When I was a kid I could eat three or
four souvlakis easily but now I have
trouble eating more than one. But that
is only because the only time I would
eat in a souvlaki shop would be in the
day because dinners are eaten in
tavernas as a form of entertainment as
well as sustainance and who wants to
eat a big greasy sandwich when it is
95 degrees out? Well, actually many people do
and souvlakis are still quite popular day
or night. In fact when I tell my old
friends who used to live in Greece I
am going there, they always ask me to
bring them back a souvlaki. One
American kid from the US Airbase
filled a suitcase with souvlakis when
he left Greece after his father's tour
of duty was over. So you see the power
of the souvlaki is strong and unless
you are the most militant vegetarian
you should not leave Greece without
trying one. (Remember that you can get them without
meat too.) Some say the failure of McDonalds to be successful in Greece has a lot to do with the popularity of souvlakis. I think it is because Greek fast food places are more diverse, combined with a healthy anti-globalization view by the young Greeks. But souvlakia are certainly a factor.
The great thing about souvlakis is
that they are cheap and filling. If your kids
are hungry you can send them to the
souvlaki shop down the street for dinner. They can go
and order for themselves and it will
be a sort of adventure and fill them
with confidence in their ability to
survive in a foreign culture. I like mine with the normal tomato, onions and parsley mixture and sadziki and hopefully a little bit of the red pepper they shake on it. Sometimes they stick a few french-fries in so if you don't want them you gotta keep you eyes open and let them know so you don't have to unwrap the thing and pull the potatoes out because it never wraps up again the way it is supposed to when done by a professional. Watch out for mustard too.
You don't want mustard befouling the sacred taste of your souvlaki. Besides
the souvlaki in the pita you can find
street vendors selling souvlaki
kalamaki which is skewered meat with a
regular piece of bread instead of pita,
and no onions, tomatoes or
As was the general consensus 25 years
ago, the best place for a souvlaki
well, just read on and we will get to that.
A Tale of 2 Souvlakis
Where Metropoleos street meets
Monastiraki square are several
souvlaki shops, next to and facing
each other, each one just as good as
the other and all owned by the same two people. But you must be careful
here. If you sit down and order a
'souvlaki', the waiter will return
with an enormous plate filled with
salad, chopped pita-bread and a skewer
or two of meat. Of course this is not
the souvlaki you know and were
expecting. I remember seeing a family of tourists
who moments before had been bursting
with excitement over the anticipated
arrival of their first souvlaki in
Greece, then stare in astonished
disbelief at the five plates put
before them. Sadly they ate them,
thinking they had made some kind of
tragic mistake when they ordered. They
had not made a mistake. While everyone
in the world knows what a souvlaki is,
these restaurants have given the word
a new meaning. The reason is simple.
The cost of a sandwich versus the cost
of a whole meal.
When they tried the stunt on us my
friend Dorian confronted the
"What the hell is this?" He
"It's a souvlaki", said the waiter.
"It's what you ordered".
"I didn't order this." said my
"Sure you did. I took the order
myself. See it's written right here."
(He showed us an illegible scrawl on a
piece of paper.)
"If this is a souvlaki, then what do
you call the skewer of meat with
tomatoes, onions and sadziki wrapped
in pita-bread?" Dorian asked.
Sandwich", smiled the waiter with an
embarrassed look on his face that told
us that he knew he had been trapped by
a couple of experts.
"Take these away and bring us two
souvlakis. The kind they sell as
souvlakis everywhere in the world
except here." Said Dorian.
The waiter returned smiling with our
So when you go to one of these places be sure to tell them
Sandwich which should look like the picture on the left being eaten by the typical American tourist who is happy because he got exactly what he expected. The waiter may not be happy about it and this article may cost the
Greek economy billions of euro in
lost souvlaki revenue but at least
souvlaki lovers of the world will
return home fulfilled. If it is in a
plate, laying flat, with more then one
skewer of meat, then send it back. Unless you want the platter, which
actually is pretty good and I highly recommend it.
I have gotten more e-mails
about the above story than just about anything in my Athens Survival Guide. One
person even threatened me if I did not remove it. I didn't remove
it and I am still here. But in Greece where they take food serious
you have to be careful with what you say about souvlaki.
The Best Souvlaki Shop in
Ask any taxi driver which is the best souvlaki shop and they will tell you
it is Thanasis
on Metropoleos Street in Monastiraki Square. Another will say no, it is Mpairachtaris right across the street. Is either of them the best? Who
knows? They are certainly the most popular with the tourists and they keep expanding so between the two of them they have taken over the entire street. Others say Kostas
on Adrianou Street in the Plaka is the best and others will say, no Kostas on Platia Ag Irini is the best, and if you go there at lunch you will usually see a line of people waiting to get their souvlaki. Some people
like the souvlaki in Platia Iroon in
Psiri or one of the shops on Athinas Street like To Theiokon by the vegetables section in the Public Market. Probably the best is in some
neighborhood tourists never visit. The best souvlaki shop in Greece may not even be in Athens. It might be in some small village on an island where the vegetables are fresh and organic and the meat, whether it is beef, pork, chicken or lamb was alive and well that very morning.
If you want my opinion, the best souvlaki I have had recently was at Olymbos in Kypseli, on the corner of Kypseli Street and Zakynthos. Why was it so good? Well first of all it was the first souvlaki I had eaten in a year. The second reason is that the shop is owned by the butcher
shop next door which has a reputation as one of the best in Athens, and the key to good souvlakia is obviously the meat. Probably the main reason is because it is so convenient to my apartment so why not have your favorite souvlaki joint a few steps from your house instead of having to walk all over Athens to eat at a 'better' souvlaki shop. If you take the 2 or 4 trolley from the National Gardens (or the National Museum if you are there) to Kypseli and get off at the stop called Zakynthou
(the 3rd stop once you turn up to Kypseli) and walk about 15 steps and you will see it. To get home cross the street and take the bus back. Or walk a couple blocks to Fokionos Negri where there are several more souvlaki shops that few tourists ever go to but are packed every night.
The Laxmatzoun Invasion
With the war in Syria causing millions to leave the country in search of safety, many of them ending up in Greece, they have brought with them some of the foods they know and love. Among them is something called laxmatzoun which is something like a souvlaki though instead of being big chunks of meat inside a sort of pita bread,
it is ground
beef or lamb and a number of other things including a healthy amount of vegetables. The bread itself is similar to a pita though it is thinner and crunchy. The seasoning is spicier than anything in the souvlaki world outside of Constantinople. Where can you find this wondrous new addition to the Greek way of eating? Right off Aeolou Street in downtown Athens, close to Agia Irini Square is a small street called Odos Karori. There you can find the famous Feyrouz, a Greek-Syrian owned
laxmatzoun shop where you can eat what is to Syrians as souvlaki is to Greeks, either with meat or vegetarian,
and a number of other Syrian dishes. Another of my favorite places on Aeolou Street is the Pera Cafe at #57 on the corner of Bissis Street. It looks like just another cafe but it is owned by a family from Istanbul and besides having excellent coffee, teas, deserts, breakfast and the usual salads and toasts you will find in a Greek cafe, they have a varied menu of Middle Eastern dishes including laxmatzoun, tabouli, hummus and deserts. Laxmatzoun is sometimes called Armenian Pizza
is also a popular dish in Lebanon and Turkey. Though it has existed for thousands of years it is just now becoming popular in Greece and anywhere immigrants from the Middle East settle. Laxmatzoun is the silver lining in the immigrant crisis as you will probably agree when you eat one.
I plan to do a lot more research on souvlakia and hopefully will be able to put together my own top 10 or even top 20 souvlaki shops in Greece if I can find someone with a strong enough stomach to accompany me on this marathon. But for now you don't need a souvlaki expert to tell you if a souvlaki is any good. Just go to your nearest souvlaki shop and order one and if you thought it was the best you have ever eaten then e-mail me.
If you still have any questions see The Alex
Charalabidis Guide to
Souvlaki and Dimitra's Guide to Souvlaki