King Gyros - A Taste of Time
400 S. Hamilton Road, Whitehall, OH (614) 866-9008
What: Snow-slickened roads don’t keep folks away from this Greek counter, firmly rooted in Whitehall with the name King Gyros for 20 years now. When we arrived, several cars waited their turn for the drive-thru, while locals lined up inside. What originally began as an authentic Greek establishment sharing its gyros, the landmark’s menu has grown to include a huge gamut of Mediterranean meals. It’s tough to pick something off of the gargantuan blue-and-gold posterboard menu; it all sounds great to try. Can’t pick? Stick with a gyro; mock aluminum-foiled wraps line the counter to give you an idea of size, from hefty hungry man (or woman) size to pretty petite.
Yianni Chalkias immigrated to Cleveland from Rhodes Island, Greece in 1976. Of course, growing up in restaurants – he worked with relatives in Cleveland and in Columbus – he learned all about Mediterranean cuisine. “The chef didn’t show up today,” he’d be told. “Why don’t we show you how to do this.” His father insisted Chalkias and his three brothers get out of the house and work – not for pay, but for experience. He opened King Gyros in 1991 to share Greek casual dining with eastside residents. He’s “graduated” the menu through the years, adding more and more dishes using family recipes, once people started getting acclimated to Greek cuisine. Now, here in 2012, he’s finally ready to take the plunge and expand with a larger eat-in area. He said he wanted to wait it out and see how business would do. Well, 20 years strong, and people are still lining up. We noted a regular customer tell Chalkias, “This is my third time in here this week.”
When: When is a good time for some great Greek grub? Anytime! Carry out, eat in, or drive thru – this spot is open every day except Sunday. Come in as early as 10:30 a.m. Monday through Friday, 11 a.m. on Saturday; and stay as late as 10 p.m. Monday through Thursday, and 11 p.m. Friday and Saturday.
Where: Look for King Gyros in Whitehall, on South Hamilton Road. It’s an easy place to find. Heading south from 270, look for it on the left once you cross Broad Street.
The Test: We got the chance to dabble in all sorts of delights as we dined alongside Chalkias. He wanted us to focus more on the dishes than the gyros, but he was sure, though, to carve us off a few slivers of meat. It was amazingly tender and so bursting with flavor that it didn’t need to be accompanied by his famous sauce, which is a twist on commonly used tzatziki.
Spread before us first was a platter of dolmades, tart and tender grape leaves stuffed with an earthy rice, beef and lamb mixture. Veggies are used in the cooking process and pureed so that the rice absorbs its flavors. Flaky spanakopita was served alongside, golden brown and loaded with spinach and delicate feta. We detected a faint sweetness in this blend due to the addition of brown sugar.
Chalkias said natives of Greece nibble on seafood like Americans do chicken wings. We got to try a plate of crispy calamari, notably slim and very tender, which is due to not overcooking it. Fried smelts, tiny fish – about the size of sardines – were cutely lined up next, waiting to be nibbled. This was the first we had been introduced to these little guys, and we liked them.
We talked about hummus, and though Chalkias reminds us that it’s more commonly a Middle Eastern treat, he wanted us to give his a try. You could feel the garlic aroma in your eyes, so deliciously aromatic it was. The addition here of cumin, and especially paprika, make his version a knockout.
On to main plates, we were amped to try the mousaka, a dish of layered potatoes, eggplant, beef, cheese, and tomato and béchamel sauces. The contrast of flavors went from sweet from the béchamel, savory from the beef, cheese, potatoes and tomato sauce, to sweet again with a hint of nutmeg hidden within. Next came Greek cabbage rolls. What makes them Greek, you ask? It’s the addition of lamb and Greek spices, as well as using feta. Chalkias was particularly fond of his lamb chops, cooked perfectly tender and pink. He urged us to eat the “lollipops” with our hands, which we did, dunking them into a cool, lemony cream sauce between bites.
It was obvious Chalkias had to get back to business, because business just kept on coming, but not before treating us to a plate of syrupy sweet treats. We sampled two baklava triangles, one gourmet, one traditional. Both were delicious, but each varied in density. The Greek custard pastry – creamy and cool – was exceptional, and a great option for someone who doesn’t have a big sweet tooth.