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Souvlaki: The Hamburger of Greece

Matt souvlakiSouvlakis 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 inexpensive, 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?

Athens Food: SouvlakiSouvlaki 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.

Athens food, SouvlakiWhen 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.

Athens Food: SouvlakiThe 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 sadziki.

As was the general consensus 25 years ago, the best place for a souvlaki is.....
well, just read on and we will get to that.

A Tale of 2 Souvlakis

Athens Food: SouvlakiWhere 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.

Souvlaki me pita, chuck millerWhen they tried the stunt on us my friend Dorian confronted the waiter.
"What the hell is this?" He asked.
"It's a souvlaki", said the waiter. "It's what you ordered".
"I didn't order this." said my friend.
"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.
"That's the "Special 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 souvlakis.

So when you go to one of these places be sure to tell them Souvlaki 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 Athens

Vatousa souvlakiAsk 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. Then again it might be in a part of Athens that many tourists would be fearful of venturing into, like Lefteris O Politis, at Satovriandou 20 which has a loyal following and many Greeks who believe that this is indeed the best souvlaski shop in Athens and has been since they opened in 1951. (They are right behiond the Hondos Center in Omonia Square and perfectly safe in the daytime.) Greek-Canadian chef Peter Minaki among others raves about Elvis Kalamaki at Plataeon 29 in Metaxourgeio which is a popular stop for night-clubbers on their way home. They only serve kalamaki, that is to say meat skewers, pork or chicken, with a slice of bread, a slice of lemon and fried potatoes.

Olymbos SouvlakiIf 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. According to George, the owner of Ouzeri tou Laki, one of the best souvlaki shops is called Rigani at the bottom of Fokionos Negri at #15 and I have to admit it was pretty good. Also very close to my apartment so it gets extra points, but it is worth traveling for.

The Laxmatzoun Invasion

laxmatzounWith 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 and 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.

Kypseli souvlaki shop

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

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