Battle of the Gyros

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Oh, how the Greek gods must die a little inside every time they hear some American order a "jy-ro" at an ethnic restaurant. Despite the constantly butchered name, the gyros (roughly pronounced "yee-ros") remains one of our favorite meat dishes. For this week's Battle of the Dishes, we visited two local mom-and-pop shops to see how their gyros stacked up.

In One Corner: Spices Mediterranean Kitchen
4040 W. Ray Road
Chandler, AZ 85226

Spices is an unassuming little corner cafe tucked inside a grocery store strip mall. It's clean and bright, with the laminated tables and wooden cafe chairs common at other order-at-the-counter establishments. But this is no standard takeout joint.

It's like the Middle Eastern version of Cheers. Owner Etgar Wagner is almost always behind the register or visiting table to chat with regulars -- and there are plenty of 'em. He'll also suggest menu items if you're a first-timer, and let you know if there's a cheaper way of ordering multiple items, such as in a combo meal.

We watched as the restaurant's lone cook sliced thick curls of gyros meat from a large slab and placed it inside a hot flatbread pita. Wagner personally delivered the gyros, and the fries we added for a buck, to our table.

"This smells incredible," remarked our dining companion. "I can smell oregano, maybe even a little allspice. No wait, maybe it's nutmeg." 

As we bit into the gyros, we stopped caring what the spice was. The generous portion of meat was flavorful and moist, with slightly crisp edges that added a nice crunch. A light drizzle of tzatziki and crisp diced tomatoes helped to balance the heaviness of the spiced meat.

"Soooo good," my friend mumbled with his mouth full of gyros meat. "The flavor of this meat is addicting. I could eat this all the time." We were definitely in agreement on that.

In The Other Corner: La Piccola Cucina
2241 N. 7th St.
Phoenix, AZ 85006

visible from the patio, you could almost imagine yourself dining in a sweet little street cafe in Northern Italy.

It might seem strange to pit these two restaurants against one another, but La Piccola and Spices actually have a lot in common. They're both fast-casual restaurants that specialize in Mediterranean cuisines. They follow an order at the counter/food delivered to the table format. And both are independently owned, neighborhood hotspots.

We were headed downtown for lunch this past weekend and happened to notice a sign out front advertising La Piccola Cucina's new lunch special. You guessed it: gyros. For $5.95! We simply couldn't pass that up. Our gyros arrived fresh and warm, served on a circle of fluffy white flatbread grilled and brushed with olive oil. 

"This is surprisingly good for a non-Greek restaurant," one dining companion noted.

The gyros meat was smooth and savory, with a soft texture. There were more veggies than the Spices version (yay, lettuce!) and a few heaping teaspoonfuls of tangy tzatziki on top. The yogurt-based sauce was more potent than usual, which made up for the lack of spice in La Piccola's gyros meat. The only negative was that the meat was a bit bland -- though the sandwich was still a steal at less than six bucks.           

The Winner: Spices Mediterranean Kitchen 

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