The Gyro Jumble: Stratos vs. Greek Isles

Several weeks back I was dining at Abacus and happened to be seated next to Mr. Dallas, The Dallas Morning News' man about town. He was tweeting up a storm on his phone, giving his few hundred followers cause to giggle at the odd clothing choice of one of the restaurant's customers that evening. He then leaned into me and asked if I ever played foursquare, the latest in social networking apps for smart phones, which allows you to "check-in" to locations, gain awards in the form of badges and become virtual mayors of the locations in return for multiple visits.

In fact, I had been experimenting with foursquare and had collected 24 mayoralties and almost as many badges. It was at that moment I unlocked the badge for visiting my third Apple store (located next to Abacus).

One of the features that intrigued me about foursquare, besides keeping track of the whereabouts of your friends, was the ability for anyone to add a few lines to review a restaurant, providing insight from the people currently seated inside the venue.

One such blurb I ran across while doodling with foursquare a few days ago was at Charlie's Opa! Grill, the Greek restaurant located in the shopping center at Preston Road and LBJ Freeway. The one-line review mentioned how delicious Charlie's gyros were, and although I had been to Charlie's, I had not had its gyro. In fact, I had not had one of the sandwiches in many years.

The decision was made on the spot that this week's Toque would involve the gyro.

Since I knew Charlie, I thought it might be fairer to seek out other choices in the gyro market. This also gave me reason to try more gyros, and that couldn't be bad.

I settled on two worthy opponents for this week's edition of the Toque to Toque challenge, Stratos Greek Taverna versus Greek Isles Grill and Taverna.

What is there not to love about the Greeks? They brought us the Olympics and ouzo.

And do not forget the flaming cheese called the saganaki, which sounds more like a Japanese shooter than the table-side flambeed haloumi. This little appetizer is always festive and gives us a reason to shout "Opa!" at the top of our lungs as it's set ablaze then doused with lemon juice.

The Greeks also brought us the gyro, which is sliced meat nestled warmly on a round of pita, dotted with tomato and onion and served with a side of tzatziki sauce, the cool cucumber and yogurt concoction.

The dish is similar to Turkish doner kabobs or the more familiar Middle Eastern shawarma, both a fresh-grilled meat pita wrap. But the more modern American version is sliced from a cone that is warmed on a spit. Although there are several companies making the cones of beef and lamb, one of the largest is Kronos, which produces enough of these industrial-sized cones to make more than 600,000 sandwiches per day. All the companies that make these cones are based in Chicago.

Locally, Stratos Greek Taverna is run by Nick Rizos, a colorful restaurateur who made his way to America after working as a crewman for Aristotle Onassis, the Greek shipping magnate. Finally landing in Dallas, Rizos worked for local clubs and restaurants, making a name for himself in the community as one of our consummate hosts, and eventually opened Olympic Pizza on Greenville Avenue. Nick claims he brought the gyro to Dallas at Olympic Pizza.

When Stratos opened on Northwest Highway just west of Bachman Lake, he perfected his recipe and added a half-dozen combinations of the sandwich to the menu.

The dimly lit restaurant has undergone some changes in the past year, adding a rooftop patio presumably for a better view and comfort from the colorful neighborhood that sits below.

The best time to try the gyro might be Monday or Tuesday evenings when all entrees are half-price.

I made my way to the ample bar the day I visited Stratos and quickly ordered my gyro, opting for a side salad instead of the customary fries. This decision cost me a buck more but was worthwhile.

When the plate arrived I was amazed at the size of the platter. It held both my sandwich and the generous salad that was made up of onion, tomato, lettuce and a handful of feta crumbles. I was particularly hungry and chomped into my first bite of the gyro. It was warm, crisp and tangy. Stratos adds its thin tzatziki sauce directly to the sandwich, which could be problematic for some.

The pita was warm with crisp edges, hinting that it had just come from the grill. The meat was tender and freshly sliced from the cone, and the vegetation was crisp and cool. All in all a perfectly wonderful sandwich, and I wondered why I had avoided it for so long. There was a slight pronounced saltiness after several bites that was a bit off-putting, but otherwise it was sublime.

My next visit was across town to visit an old friend of Rizos' and fellow Greek Gus Kostas.. A large and fit man with a marvelous Greek accent who invites you into his conversations with ease, Kostas is excited to talk about Greek food and the history of the Greek restaurants in Dallas.

When I arrived at Greek Isles, I found Kostas sitting with his wife at the bar sharing a huge steak. I sat next to them, ordered a gyro and also succumbed to some fine crab fingers. The gyro came standard with fries and a large Greek salad with a side of olives.

It was moments before my entree arrived, and the plate was picture perfect. The pita had a golden hue, making me think it had been grilled in butter, but in fact it was a rich olive oil. The fries also were cooked in an olive oil blend, giving them a richer flavor.

Besides the upgraded pita, the slices of gyro meat were given some special treatment too. The meat was tender, of course, but especially juicy with just a hint of saltiness. More pronounced was the oregano and other seasonings. The tzatziki sauce was chunky and fresh tasting.

I sat quietly in my chair enjoying the gyro until the last morsel was devoured, something I typically do not accomplish on Toque missions with multiple lunches.

I enjoyed listening to the rapport between Kostas and his wife as I finished the platter of food, only stopping to smile. I reminded myself to come back for a visit soon and try some of the other offerings such as the rack of lamb, or that delicious looking steak I eyeballed the couple eating.

Both restaurants I visited for the Gyro Jumble were worthy opponents, but for the liberal smattering of olive oil on the pita, the freshness of the tzatzki sauce and the clever treatment of the fries, we award today's Toque bragging rights to Greek Isles Grill and Taverna.

I suspect if you visit Greek Isles today you will see a smiley face on the comments for the venue on foursquare. That came from me.

Stratos Greek Taverna 2907 W. Northwest Hwy, Dallas 214-352-3321

Greek Isles Grill and Taverna 3309 N. Central Expressway, Plano 972-423-7778

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