Greek street food has had something of a hard life in Sydney. While beloved in Greece, the gyro, also referred to as souvlaki, has been all but banished to greasy, can-of-Coke-for-a-dollar takeaways. The kind of joints with logs of sweaty processed meat on rotating pedestals and tabouli made from the grass used to decorate model-train sets.
At the other end of the spectrum, the blue-and-white world of Greek tavern dining has oft been plagued by stodgy moussaka and vine leaves dripping with more cheap oil than an episode of Dallas. There have of course been outstanding exceptions - much respect goes to the likes of Apollo in Potts Point for making Greek food as sexy as it should be and comeback-king Peter Conistis (Alpha, Eleni's, Omega, Civic) for creating some of the best high-end Greek food Sydney has seen in past 20 years.
Back at the grassroots level, things are changing. Talented chefs such as David Tsirekas (ex Xanthi and Perama) are injecting integrity, technique and quality produce greek street food and Sydney can't get enough of it.
"In Australia there's burger joints everywhere, but in Greece it's all about the souvla houses," Tsirekas says. "They're always located at street level so people can grab something quickly. You usually get souvlaki in a piece of pita or they might slice a piece of baguette and thread it on the end of the skewer with the meat. You eat a bit of the meat, a bit of the bread, and you walk around the streets of Athens."
In Athens, everything shuts down about 2pm. Greeks pick up some meat for lunch and head home for a siesta before returning to work at 5pm. I put it to Tsirekas that this is some lifestyle. "I know," he laughs. "That's why they're in all the mess they're in, man!"
Tsirekas has brought his love of Greek street food to Kefi, a new tavern and souvlaki house next to the Kingsgrove train line. After the hatted Xanthi shut its Westfield doors in March, Tsirekas saw Kefi as a new challenge. "Fine dining is a very confined style of eating where people are only concentrating on their own plate," Tsirekas says. "The idea of Greek food is that it's all about sharing. You want to cut into a big piece of braised meat and pass it around the table. I was trying to incorporate some of the street food elements at Xanthi. I had the meats on the spit and I was doing wraps at lunch but it wasn't popular enough."
In the past six months, Greek street food has risen from the ashes to become one of Sydney's go-to foodie pleasures.
Greek street food is all about the pork. "Pork is the most eaten meat in Greece contrary to what everybody thinks, which is lamb," Tsirekas says. "Lamb is only eaten on special occasions and holidays."
The pork at Kefi is flipping amazing. "I'm here at 8am every morning," Tsirekas says. "Rather than pressed and processed meat we slice our own pork and leave it to marinate for a couple of days in rosemary, sage, garlic and paprika." Tsirekas marinates all Kefi's meat differently. Lamb becomes good mates with fresh thyme and oregano, and chicken spends quality time with basil and tarragon. The best part about all these marinades is each meat has a unique flavour and there's none of those confusing "is it chicken or pork" conversations when you get a takeaway of mixed souvla. It also means Kefi has the best gyros (or souvlaki, see 'Get your Greek on' panel, right) in Sydney, hands down.
Kefi Souvlaki Pizza Bar is now open for trade. The menu also features less traditional soft-shell crab wraps and very traditional kokoretsi (lamb offal wrapped in caul fat wrapped in lamb intestines). It's attached to the Kefi Greek Tavern restaurant, scheduled to open in a fortnight.
1/231 Kingsgrove Rd, Kingsgrove, 02 9554 4442
Kerasma Souvlaki Merchant
Kerasma is located a couple doors up from Newtown station. The logo looks like the cover from an early '90s fantasy novel and the restaurant smells like a Pizza Hut from the same era.
A farmyard of meats and haloumi rotates over hot coals, waiting to be summoned to a souvlaki plate or pita pocket. The mixed pita is the size, weight, and shape of a football Hercules might use for a park throw around. It comes with pork souvlaki, salad, and sheftalias (herb-heavy Cypriot pork sausages wrapped in caul fat).
These guys have the biggest selection of souvlaki options you're likely to find in Sydney. Pork, lamb, and chicken head the menu, but a little further down is the likes of snail, liver, tongue, scallop, and loukaniko (another type of Greek sausage, this time flavoured with fennel seeds and orange peel).
Kerasma also has a fantastic range of sweets you can order to go. The loukoumades with honey syrup, cinnamon, and pistachio are ace provided you've got 20 minutes to spare while they're cooked. A bag of shamshi (fried, hand stretched filo pillows filled with semolina custard) is in your hands in half the time. Dusted in icing sugar and rose petals, they resemble miniature Macca's apple pies dolled up for a night on the town.
2/324A King St, Newtown, 02 9517 2403
Zeus Street Greek
The teams behind Pony Dining Group and Crust Pizza collaborated to open Zeus Street Greek in June."The community has been loving it, and not just the Greeks" says Kyprianou. "It's just honest simple food that's different to anywhere else in the area. Quality fast-food that's an alternative to Italian and Thai."
Zeus owners are first-generation Hellenic Australian and beneath the franchise-surface-sheen (further Zeus locations are in the works for Rosebery and Cronulla) there's integrity to the food. The signature Zeus Pita (they're called pitas here, not gyros by the way) is a squat little handful filled with lamb shoulder souvla, slaw, smoked eggplant, onion and parsley. A $6.50 side of feta and oregano fries is a worthy decision to accompany that pita.
Zeus also has a killer snail of spanakopita as flaky as it is oily (in a good way) and loukoumades so soft and sweet they make Greek mothers cry. Well, maybe not cry but at least give a thumbs up. "The mums love 'em," says Kyprianou. "They come in and pick up six portions at a time. If Greek mums are happy, I'm happy!"
The best part is you can get as sticky with the food as you like thanks to a beautiful white basin to wash your hands in. It's located just next to the kitchen and saves having to trek to the bathrooms for honey removal. This is an initiative that I have not seen before and I infinitely applaud. Hail Zeus!
1/187-189 Lyons Rd, Drummoyne, 9181 4646
Damn, this is a sexy deli. I'm a sucker for white marble and there's plenty of it at Alpha Foodstore (next to Alpha restaurant run by legend of Sydney Greek food, Peter Conistis). I also love shelves stocked with exotic Greek drygoods and pies and there's plenty of those too.
Granted, pies aren't the most traditional Greek street food. However, they're Australian street food if there ever was one and I'm all for the two cultures getting acquainted. Especially when the result is pies of spanakopita, slow cooked lamb, or three cheeses with caramelised onion and mint. The pastry is light and flakey and each pie is just the right size to wolf down on the walk back to the office.
Alpha Foodstore also has a beaut selection of Greek sweets to take away like pistachio cigars, karidopita (walnut cake), and a next-level galaktoboureko which is one of the greatest custard slices you'll ever eat.
238 Castlereagh St, Sydney, 02 9098 1111
If you've driven down Forest Road in Bexley any time since April, you might have noticed a queue of people snaking down the street. Folks are flocking here en masse to worship at the altar of the gyro.
Gyradiko was the first of these new-wave gyro joints open in Sydney. On any given night you might find soccer mums, track-suited couples, real estate agents, and the occasional politician lining up for their choice of chicken or pork marinated in spices and olive oil and wrapped in a pita blanket with red onion, tzatziki, tomato and chips.
Take a lead from the regulars and grab your gyro to go. The action's back out on the street to eat your carb-pocket to the tune of Greek music blaring from Gyradiko's loudspeakers (seriously, you can still hear Zorba plucking a mandolin from two blocks away).
307 Forest Rd, Bexley, 0452 543 202
All Good Things Eatery
Kritharaki of Queensland spanner crab, calamari, dashi, smoked kasari and squid ink skordalia, anyone? Or kurobuta pork neck with Cretan honeycomb, miso, salt and vinegar chicharron and leek ash?
If you think it sounds like there's a Japanese influence at All Good Things that's because there is. "We source the best meats NSW has to offer through Feather and Bone and use Japanese methods and ingredients to create a Greek menu," says head chef and co-owner Phillip Lakis.
Lakis is currently on a research trip in Greece and is set to launch a souvlaki-meets-yakitori menu when returns to Australia in August. The menu will feature things on sticks like stavros peppers with kefalograviera (sheep's milk cheese) sauce, octopus with ouzo salt, and wagyu tongue with stavros pepper salsa.
I shudder every time I hear the word "fusion" and in the wrong hands this Greek-Japanese crossover could go very awry. However, Lakis was accepted for a stint at Noma (aka the world's best restaurant) before opening the restaurant and if that's not a sign of good things I don't know what is.
Shop 9-11, Mashman Ave, Kingsgrove, 02 7903 0198
GET YOUR GREEK ON
Souvlaki (aka kalamaki): Small pieces of meat, usually on a stick or hand-held in a pita.
Kontosouvli: A short, sword like skewer threaded with larger hunks of meat than a souvlaki.
Souvla: A whole carcass on the spit or simply larger portions of meat.
Gyro: Traditionally a coronary-inducing pita filled with pork, tomato, onion, parsley, tzatziki, chips, and mustard.
Yeero: Same as above but written as such to stop Australians rhyming gyro with biro.
Spanakopita: A spinach and feta pastry. One of those great foods that works equally well for breakfast, lunch, or dinner.
Loukoumades: Sweet, honey-drenched doughnut of the Gods.