One of my favorite foods, which is actually a very common preamble for me, is the gyro sandwich. Everything about them is perfect, from the warm squishy pita bread to the insanely delicious and flavorful gyro meat itself, to the universally enhancing feta cheese. So it’s my intention to go on a mission to find the best gyro in Boulder- followed possibly, by Boulder’s best baklava.
Before kicking off this journey let’s define a few key terms, shall we?
-Gyro: a Greek processed meat made of ground beef and lamb trimmings combined with spices, water and bread crumbs, slow roasted on a vertical spit. Yum. The sandwich is often made with tomatoes, lettuce, tzatziki sauce and feta, and is always wrapped in a pita.
-Tzatziki sauce: A Greek or Turkish dip made from yogurt, cucumbers, dill, olive oil, garlic, lemon juice, salt and pepper.
First Stop on My Search for the Perfect Gyro: The Caspian Deli
It’s one of those beautiful warm and breezy days in Boulder and I’m sitting outside the Caspian Deli on Pearl and 26th. I just bought frozen gyro meat with the intention of being able to freely whip up a gyro sandwich whenever I damn well please. While I was at it, I also bought a baklava for the road. The baklava, gone before I made it to the road, was by no means the best I’ve had. The construction was perfect (honey-soaked base of filo dough and nuts topped with a tightly-packed thick flaky layer of filo crust). But the whole pastry was absolutely drenched in a thick viscous sugary goo which puddled around the pastry as I bit into it. After finishing the saturated mass, my body was immediately put into a state of sugar shock as I desperately searched for a glass of water in the deli. Eventually I washed it down with some Armenian string cheese which no doubt, is sending my stomach on quite a thrilling ride as we speak. So I’m not so impressed.
The gyro that I had at the Caspian Deli a few weeks prior was definitely good (extra points for the shaved-off-the-spit meat) but not overly memorable like the detailed, graphic memories I often have of truly mind-blowing meals. What I do remember about it was that the tzatziki sauce was a definite stand out. I’m gathering that the Caspian Deli is much more of a grocery store than a deli. In terms of a grocery store though, it gets very high points in my book. The dingy ethnic vibe immediately slots it in with Boulder’s other under-rated but exceptional ethnic grocery outposts and the old ladies behind the counter are more than happy to not only make your sandwich, but also to dispense cooking advice (the kind of old world utilitarian cooking tips that are much more focused on feeding a family of 16 hungry men than on how to garnish a dish with an attractive mint chiffonade).
Second Stop: The Pita Pit
The Pita Pit is an all-time favorite of mine and I don’t think I’ve ever NOT ordered their gyro sandwich. It is absolutely exceptional. All the ingredients are delicious, the pita is so warm and squishy that it feels like biting into a warm blanket and the sandwiches are sizeable enough to more than satisfy. I’ve always ordered the pita with extra feta and banana peppers, a request which has always been received with favorable- albeit stoned- nods of approval. And the fact that the Pita Pit is open until 3 am Fridays and Saturdays and midnight all other nights, makes it a no-brainer late night stop.
My Next Gyro was homemade, with the meat I bought at the Caspian Deli. First off, the gyro meat was awesome. Righteously good. And easily heated up in a frying pan on low heat. It tasted just like the meat shaven off the spit in the deli. I put a few slices in a pita with sprouts, cucumbers, onions, cherry tomatoes, banana peppers, tzatziki sauce, goat cheese and basil leaves from my garden. The goat cheese was a crude replacement for feta but all I had so I went with the Italian garden-fresh take on a gyro, helped out by the sprouts and basil. And it was a total success. The only thing that I could have done better is not to have shied on the meat. Moral of this story: the Caspian Deli is the ultimate place to meet all of your gastro-Mediterranean needs.
Tips for trying this at home:
-Don’t let the gyro meat crisp in the pan. It’s best hot, juicy and tender.
-Toast the pita slightly to get it warm and squishy before assembling the sandwich.
-Forget about your low-carb whatever hangup for just this one meal and buy the thickest, squishiest pitas you can find. The texture is crucial for the meal and if you pack it as full as I did, you’ll need all the support you can get to keep it from cracking and falling apart in your hands.
My Next Stop: Falafel King
I went to Falafel King a few days ago during my lunch break. I’d never been before. Honestly it’s impressive they’ve been able to keep their prime real estate on the Pearl Street Mall, considering that their food, or ambiance for that matter, certainly has never blown anyone out of the water. Then again, how the countless Indian transplant stores selling incense, alpaca-fur socks and individual pebbles is able to pay their rent every month without running a black market mafia trade out of the back, I have no idea. Anyway, Falafel King was in all ways average. They don’t have too many choices, the gyros taste the same as is does anywhere else, and the service and ambiance are again, unmemorable. The King’s saving grace is its Pearl Street patio. I took a book outside and enjoyed the sun and people watching while munching away on my average food….
Emergency Baklava stop: The Yellow Deli
If you haven’t been to the Yellow Deli, go. Tonight. Mainly because it’s unlike any other place you’ve experienced. The Deli is owned and run by The Twelve Tribes, a Messianic community of folks whose beliefs I’ve never quite figured out. Walking in, you’ll be greeted by what looks like an entire Amish family and the soft plinking of balalaika-esque music on loop. I went into the Deli one night only to be greeted by a woman in peasant garb, rocking a baby in her arms. I was surprised to find that the woman behind the counter wasn’t churning butter or bottle-feeding a goat. I was lead to a secluded table deep in the bowels of the hobbit-like hippy outpost that is the Yellow Deli, and tucked into a handcrafted wood and leather bench, softly illuminated by a low-hanging lamp woven out of straw.
The Deli has a varied and actually quite good menu, aptly representing all possible dietary, and ideologically dietary, restrictions. And the best part is, they’re open 24 hours a day, every day except from 3 on Friday until noon on Sunday- for the Tribes’ version of Sabbath. Anyway, amongst their array of home-baked carob cookies and mate bars, is baklava! Although nothing extraordinarily special, their baklava is very nice. It’s not too sweet or soupy, it’s dry and flaky and freshly made, and chock full of nuts. I would rank the Deli’s baklava at a high average, but without any of the exceptional transcendent qualities of the next one I tried. Which brings me to….
My Final Stop: Arabesque on Walnut and 16th
This is my new favorite restaurant, no questions asked. I am sold. I had been eyeing Arabesque in passing for a while because of it’s cute little tiled and umbrella’d courtyard (a weakness of mine), but was worried the vibe would be akin to Urth Cafe; packed, rushed and franchised. But, to my absolute delight, it was not at all. Before even getting a chance to look at the indoor chalk-drawn menu, the owner, a fiery and sassy Persian lady launched into an abrasively welcoming introduction to her restaurant and all the different possible dining options. Being Persian, they didn’t have gyro on the menu, but the cuisine is similar enough that I feel justified to include Arabesque in this synopsis. I got the rolled grape leaves and baba ghannoush and the friend I was with got the chicken shawarma plate which was laid out on a base of hummus and served with thick home-baked pita bread. All of it was ridiculous good.
And, for dessert, we got a Turkish coffee (a shot of strong coffee steeped in cloves and spices) and baklava. Now this baklava… let’s talk about this baklava for a minute. It was so good. Dare I say, Arabesque has perfect baklava. For the amount of respect I now have for Arabesque, the firecracker behind the counter, and her baklava, I will happily end my search here. The baklava was crisp, flaky and packed with walnuts. It wasn’t too sweet or soaked with sugar which in my opinion is a crutch used to disguise a badly made pastry. And it was packed with a spicy herbiness that I’ve never tasted before in baklava. Needless to say, it was fantastic. Based on this first impression, I will gladly return to Arabesque until I’ve tried everything on the menu.