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Souvlaki: The Hamburger of Greece

Souvlakis are the hamburgers of Greece. At least they were until hamburgers arrived and now hamburgers are the hamburgers of Greece. Souvlaki shops have become more scarce and fast food places more plentiful, though you should not have trouble finding a souvlaki if you want one and many of the fast food places have souvlakia too. 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.

Greek food, souvlaki

What is a Souvlaki?

Athens Food: SouvlakiIt is usually 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 knownas 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 (Very rare. I think there is a place next to MacDonalds at Syntagma where I saw it). During lent there is a small souvlaki shop on Agia Zoni street near Foikinos Negri in Kypseli that has kalamarakia souvlakia since squid is a bloodless creature which is the only meat you can eat during lent.

Athens food, SouvlakiWhen I was a kid I could eat three or four of them easily but now I have trouble imagining eating 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 sandwhich when it is 95 degrees out? Well, many people do and they 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 vegetarean 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 yuor eyes open and let them know so you don't have to unwrap the thing and pull them 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.

A Tale of 2 Souvlakis

Athens Food: SouvlakiWhere Metropoleos street meets Monistiraki square are several souvlaki shops, next to and facing each other, each one just as good as the other. 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 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. 

Greek Food: Souvlaki ShopSo when you go to one of these places be sure to tell them Souvlaki Sandwich . It should look like the picture above on the left. This article will cost the Greek economy billions of drachma 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 ).

I have gotten more e-mails about the above story than just about anything in the 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

Olymbos SouvlakiAsk any taxi driver which is the best souvlaki shop and they will tell you it is Thanasis across the street. Is it the best? Who knows? Others say Kostas on Adrianou is the best and others will say, no Kostas on Platia Ag Katerini is the best. 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 Market. Probably the best is in some neighborhood tourists never visit. If you have a favorite e-mail me and let me know. See Readers Souvlaki Reviews. If you want my opinion, well, the best souvlaki I have had was at Olymbos in Kypseli, on the corner of Odos Kypseli and Odos 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. 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 every go to.

Souvlakia in AthensThe most popular Souvlaki shops are those at the end of Metropolis street right at Monastiraki square. The one on the corner is owned by the same guy who owns the famous old Taverna Sigalas, right next door. His name is Spiro and his picture is everywhere, happily posing with famous people, Greeks and international. In fact it is my personal goal to have my picture up there with Spiro one day since it is sort of Greece's answer to Gruman's Chinese Theater. So if you want to do a little active campaigning for me feel free to ask Spiro or the waiter when will he have Matt Barrett in one of his pictures. Generally you have to be a little more famous than I am but with the help of some of my readers maybe we can speed up the timetable and insure my immortality. In the meantime 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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