Shortly after man discovered fire — probably by dinnertime that same day — he came up with the idea of threading meat onto a branch and roasting it over the flames. Over the ensuing hundreds of thousands of years, that branch evolved into a metal spit, and eventually into a mechanical device, the horizontal rotisserie.
Our story begins when someone took that horizontal spit and rotated it 90 degrees so the pieces of meat formed an upright column and the heat source wasn’t under the spit, but flanked the length of it.
Thus was born the Mediterranean specialty variously known as gyros, shawarma and doner kebab. Throughout Greece and Turkey, Israel and the Middle East, countless meals and snacks start with a man slicing meat off that rotating column and laying it, along with various vegetables and sauces, atop a waiting piece of bread.
On Long Island, meat sliced off a vertical spit is usually known as gyros, its Greek name. (Language note: The word is singular — one gyros — and is correctly pronounced “yee-ros” not “ji-roz.”) The dish was born in the town of Bursa in what is now Turkey.
He who first spun the meat
“Most dishes evolve, they very rarely get invented,” said Clifford Wright, author of the celebrated reference cookbook “A Mediterranean Feast” (William Morrow, 1999). “But in the case of vertical-spit-roasted meat, it really does seem to have been invented in Bursa in the mid 19th century.”
There’s a family in Bursa, Wright said, whose ancestor, Iskender Efendi, wrote in the late 19th century that he and his grandfather, Haci Iskender, created doner kebab (literally “turning meat”). In those pre-electricity, pre-gas days, Wright said, the grill “would have had little shelves to hold hot coals.”
To this day, the Iskender family operates a chain of restaurants in Turkey, all of which, according to iskender.com, serve doner kebab made with “yearling lamb and suckling veal, lamb escalope and Iskender meat ball.” And the world over, “Iskender kebab” refers to a dish of lamb doner kebab with tomato sauce, yogurt and butter served on pieces of pita bread to soak up all the juices.
From Bursa, doner kebab spread all over Anatolia and throughout the Ottoman Empire. When it got to the Middle East, it was renamed shawarma, an Arabic transliteration of the Turkish cevirme, “turning.” In Greece, it was renamed gyros, Greek for “turn.” Arab immigrants even brought the dish to Mexico, where, eventually, the lamb got swapped out for pork, corn tortillas replaced the bread and the whole works was garnished with pineapple and dubbed taco al pastor (shepherd-style).
In America, doner kebab and shawarma stayed pretty true to their Mediterranean roots. Long Island is home to dozens of Turkish restaurants, almost of all of which make doner the old-fashioned way: seasoning slices of lamb and beef and then stacking them, by hand, on the spit. Middle Eastern restaurants here are rarer, but from Lawrence (the kosher Ahuva’s Grill Express) to Selden (the halal Kabobshak), the level of shawarma quality is high.
Greek gyros, however, hit the big time, which inevitably led to mass production. Today there are a handful of national gyros manufacturers, most based in Chicago, that produce those ubiquitous columns of ground beef and lamb that spin at most casual Greek eateries. Their contents vary, but the ingredients of one popular brand include beef, lamb, water, soy protein concentrate, bread crumbs, onion, salt, monosodium glutamate and tricalcium phosphate.
The Greek Empire strikes back
When Tom and Gabriella Matheos opened Go Greek in Garden City a year ago, they dispensed with the “Greek mystery meat.” Tom had grown up in his parents’ restaurant, the Olympic Diner in Deer Park, but he left the fold to work at Chipotle. Over the course of his years at the chain (where he became a manager), he saw it was possible to run a successful restaurant that relied on freshly prepared foods. A frequent visitor to Greece, he also noted that Greek gyros had only the most superficial resemblance to ours. “Pork is the most common gyros meat there by far,” he said. “Lamb, they either roast in the oven or skewer for souvlaki.”
So from Day 1, Go Greek made its own pork gyros and chicken gyros, seasoning the meat and hand-stacking it on the spit. The initial customer reaction was not good. “A lot of people were dumbfounded,” Matheos recalled. “When they didn’t see the ground lamb-beef gyro, they’d point to what we had and say, ‘That’s not a gyro.’ ”
Matheos stuck to his guns and offered samples of “real” gyros to every customer. “Once they got a taste,” he said, “they’d say, ‘All right, give me that one.’ ” Now pork, the hardest sell, is neck-and-neck with chicken, and almost nobody asks anymore about lamb.
Go Greek also makes gyros sandwiches the way it’s done in Greece: “We throw a few French fries on top — that takes the place of lettuce.”
Greek restaurants that want to upgrade their gyros game have an alternative to making their own. About two years ago, Athens-based Megas Yeeros (the largest gyros producer in Europe) set up shop in New Jersey and is now supplying pork, chicken and beef-and-lamb stacks using sliced whole-muscle meat.
Megas Yeeros is distributed in the metropolitan area by Optima Foods, the Deer Park wholesale supplier to Greek restaurants and markets. Dimitrios Hadzipolihronis, vice president, said that while most of Optima’s gyros are still traditional ground-meat “cones,” Megas Yeeros sales are growing, “especially among newer establishments.” And he’s partial to what he calls “the stacked gyros.” “It’s closer to what they have in Greece,” he said, “it’s healthier, and to tell you the truth, it has more flavor.”
Here are eight Long Island spots where you can take meat for a spin.
Go Greek (180 Seventh St., Garden City): When Tom and Gabriella Matheos opened Go Greek in Garden City a year ago, they dispensed with the “Greek mystery meat.” Tom had grown up in his parents’ restaurant, the Olympic Diner in Deer Park, but he left the fold to work at Chipotle. Over the course of his years at the chain (where he became a manager), he saw it was possible to run a successful restaurant that relied on freshly prepared foods. A frequent visitor to Greece, he also noted that Greek gyros had only the most superficial resemblance to ours. “Pork is the most common gyros meat there by far,” he said. “Lamb, they either roast in the oven or skewer for souvlaki.” At Go Greek, pork or chicken gyros can be had in a pita with tzatziki, tomatoes and French fries; over lemon-oregano rice; or over one of four salads: villager, romaine, grain or chickpea. More info: 516-746-2222, gofreshgreek.com
A chicken gyro rice bowl at Go Greek in Garden City.
Yiasou Yeeros (1060 Old Country Rd., Plainview): When Yiasou Yeeros opened last year, both the beef-lamb and chicken gyros were hand-stacked, but customers roundly rejected the latter and it was replaced by a ground-meat version (albeit ground in-house). But partner Stephanie Mantzoukas has since introduced hand-stacked pork gyros on Tuesdays, and they’re gaining ground. There are gyros sandwiches (with tomatoes, onion, French fries and sauce) and platters (with Greek salad, pita bread and choice of fries, rice or lemon potatoes). More info: 516-490-3480, yiasouyeeros.com
Spinning gyros at Yiasou Yeeros in Plainview.
Mazi (33 E. Main St., Riverhead): When owner John Mantzopoulos resurrected his burned-down Athens Grill as Mazi in 2015, he opened with three homemade stacked gyros: lamb-beef, chicken and pork. Pork (his favorite) was met with widespread indifference and got the boot; the lamb (leg) and beef (top sirloin) are now ground in-house; chicken remains a combination of seasoned thighs and breasts. There are gyros sandwiches and platters (with potatoes, fries or rice). Any salad can be topped with gyros, and pork gyros shows up in the Cuban sandwich. More info: 631-740-9933, maziriverhead.com
The Gyro Flight, with chicken, beef and lamb topping bread, at Mazi in Riverhead.
Pasha Kebob and Grill
Pasha Kebob and Grill (656 Rte. 109, North Lindenhurst): At this market-takeout with seats, the doner kebab starts with an enormous hunk of top round beef that owner Mehmet Ocal carefully slices into rounds of ascending circumference. The slices are marinated in herbs and spices for a few days, then stacked, interspersed with slices of lamb breast, onto a vertical spit. In a pita, wrap or hero. There's also the Iskender kebab platter. More info: 631-225-7499, kebobtonight.com
Lamb and beef doner meat is covered in a hearty tomato sauce and served with spicy peppers and Turkish bread at Pasha Kebob and Grill in Lindenhurst.
Turkuaz Mediterranean Gourmet
Turkuaz Mediterranean Gourmet (493 Hempstead Tpke., West Hempstead): There are doner kebab sandwiches. Platters come with Turkuaz’s salad and terrific rice pilaf. Iskender is doner kebab heaped onto pieces of toasted bread, then slathered with drippings and tomato sauce and finished with a side of yogurt. More info: 516-280-2973, turkuazmediterraneangourmet.com
Doner kebab, lamb meat shaved off the vertical spit and served with a side salad and rice, at Turkuaz Mediterranean Gourmet in West Hempstead.
Mavi Grill (749 Mount Sinai-Coram Rd., Mount Sinai): This elegant little Turkish spot makes doner kebab with top round of lamb, brisket and top round of beef. In a pita sandwich (with fries); on a platter with vegetables, rice and bulgur or in Iskender kebab over fried pita bread. More info: 631-509-4866, mavigrill.net
Iskender kebab platter, with thinly sliced lamb and beef over pita bread and topped with yogurt and tomato sauce, at Mavi Grill in Mount Sinai.
Kabobshak Mediterranean Grill
Kabobshak Mediterranean Grill (680 Middle Country Rd., Selden): Tarik Yasin, who emigrated from Jordan in 1997, makes two shawarmas here, one a layered combination of beef knuckle and leg of lamb with a marinade that includes a haunting note of cardamom, the other chicken with an unexpected kick of fennel. There are platters, but go for the sandwiches (chicken or beef-lamb) because they are stuffed into homemade pita and drizzled with tahini that’s been deepened with garlic and lightened with yogurt. More info: 631-320-3351, kabobshak.com
The lamb shawarma sandwich, topped with onions, pickles and tahini sauce in a puffy pita bread, at Kabobshak Mediterranean Grill in Selden.
Ahuva’s Grill Express
Ahuva’s Grill Express (480 Rockaway Tpke., Lawrence): At Ahuva’s, shawarma is done Israeli-style: You have your choice of either chicken (dark meat) or turkey layered with lamb trimmings. Both are seasoned with a proprietary blend of aromatic spices that owe a lot to owner Avi Tsadok’s mother’s Yemenite heritage. While your meat is being sliced and inserted into a pita or fresh baguette or onto a platter with salad, rice or fries (chicken or turkey-lamb), head to the salad bar for your fill of cumin-scented Moroccan carrot salad, deep-fried jalapeños, beets with red and green peppers, pickled cabbage or whatever cold dishes the kitchen has been inspired to make. It’s free with the shawarma. More info: 516-239-0110, ahuvasgrill.com
Avi Tsadok and his family own Ahuva's Grill Express in Lawrence.