Shawarma - Brother of Gyros - at Grape Leaves

September 1 is National Gyros Day

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By David Hammond

We've had very good Greek gyros at local places like Micky's Gyros and Ribs and Papaspiro's. At  both places, you get the Chicago favorite: finely minced meat, mostly beef combined with lamb, never pork, usually griddled but sometimes cut off a rotating cone cooked by a vertical heating element, served in a pita or on a plate. 

Of course, the idea of spitted meat is way older than the Chicago-born minced meat cone, which was introduced on a grand scale, nationwide, when Greek-born Chris Tomaras opened Kronos Foods in 1975. By 1979, according to The Chicago Food Encyclopedia (co-edited by Oak Parker Bruce Kraig), Kronos supplied 60% of Chicago's gyros and is now the world's largest producer of gyros. 

People have been cooking meat on a spit for a long time. Gyros are much like Middle Eastern shawarma, and both are related to doner kebab, which means "rotating grilled meat." Doner kebab was introduced to Germany by a Turkish immigrant in 1971, and it is now one of Deutschland's most popular street foods. 

Yet another variation on this theme are the tacos al pastor of Mexico, which are composed of seasoned meat, frequently pork, ideally cut from a cone of spitted meat right before serving. Lebanese immigrants are credited with introducing tacos al pastor to Mexico. 

So whether what you're eating is gyros, shawarma, doner kebab, or tacos al pastor, it's all seasoned meat that might have been cut off a rotating frustum but in the U.S. is more likely to be seasoned slices or meat morsels griddled right before serving. 

We hadn't been to Grape Leaves for decades, so we were pleasantly surprised when we dropped in to see that new ownership had wrought some positive changes on the space. The interior has been redesigned with care, nothing fancy, just careful arrangements of pillows, ceiling lamps and frames filled with Mediterranean jewelry. 

The new owners are Moroccan, and the Moroccan Cigars – long, stogie-shaped pastry stuffed with chopped beef and egg – are a good place to start a meal.  These pastry tubes are topped with sugar and cinnamon, a sweet-savory combination that may seem unusual to American palates but is not uncommon in Morocco. 

Lamb shawarma is tender pieces of gently spiced lamb and rice, very good though not inexpensive ($18 is on the high side for lunch). Instead of the yogurt-cucumber tzatziki usually served on gyros, the lamb shawarma is drizzled with sesame sauce. 

For dessert, we had the baklava (what else?) and Turkish coffee, which was fantastic, with hints of cardamom in a thick dark brew, a perfect complement to super-sweet pastry. 

When we walk by Grape Leaves in the evening, the place seems to be doing a very brisk business.  There are abundant vegetarian dishes on the Grape Leaves menu, and the meat dishes – like our lamb shawarma – use the meat as just one component of many, rather than being positioned as the center-of-the-plate star. Using meat as a condiment is probably the healthiest and most environmentally conscious way to consume animals. As the Amazon jungle burns to make way for grazing land, the importance of eating smaller portions of meat becomes obvious.

September 1 is National Gyros day, appropriately celebrated with any one of the many dishes that feature seasoned, spitted meat, including shawarma, the brother of gyros, at Grape Leaves.

Note: reviewer is anonymous and personally pays for all meals; viewpoints expressed are those of the reviewer alone.


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