If some days I can't decide among chicken, pork or beef, it's never when I've had a chance to hear about Nik Hashemi's kabobs.
"The chicken is marinated overnight — it's a chicken breast — with olive oil, saffron and onion, salt, pepper, a little touch of garlic, and sumac and a little bit of turmeric," says the Golden Gyros owner. "So we marinate it overnight, and then we put it on a skewer. And we put it on a charbroiler, but it doesn't touch the grill — it barbecues with just the heat of the flame."
Confronted with a plate of the real thing, in the reclaimed Taco Bell across from the U.S. Olympic Training Center, it amazingly enough tastes even better than it sounds. For $7.49, you get seven or eight ping-pong-ball-sized lumps of tender chicken imbued with a charred yellow tint over a bed of straw-colored Persian rice with roasted tomatoes. They take some 15 minutes to cook, but the firm, plump pieces of pollo cover your tongue with notes reminiscent of lightly bitter citrus grilled in savory honey; they then vanish almost immediately, leaving nothing to linger over.
"Holy crap," said my girlfriend after her first bite. "Wow. Those are good."
They're the favorite of Hashemi, a Jewish immigrant who, as a 17-year-old, fled from the Iranian Revolution. "The situation got out of hand after the shah left," he says, referencing overthrown leader Mohammad Reza Pahlavi. "I lost a few friends that I grew up with, and I went to [the] same high school [with], so if I wouldn't have left I would probably be one of them."
Iran's loss has been our gain: Hashemi's on his fourth local restaurant, though the others, including a Mediterranean outfit in the Citadel Mall, have since been sold.
We should be most thankful for the spanakopita ($4.29), dolmades ($2.49) and hummus ($4.29). Get the veggie platter ($7.99) for all three, but any of them could stand on their own, like the little, delicious, steaming spinach-filled pillows bound in flaky phyllo. Or the grape-leaf-wrapped dolmades, which arrived on a blisteringly hot plate, and expertly ride the line between mint and lemon, never veering into toothpaste-taste territory. Or a smooth and creamy hummus, which seemed only a touch short on tahini.
To the pretty good, I offer the typical gyro sandwich ($4.59) and the falafel platter ($6.49). Like almost every like-minded joint in town, the Greek treat's meat comes from Kronos Inc., in Chicago, so it's par for the course; so does the pita bread, actually, even though the menu says it's homemade. Either way, it's too dry, especially for the amount of tzatziki included. Equally lacking are the little falafel discs, which crunch with authority but don't taste seasoned.
As for the not-good, the chicken gyro ($4.59), with its horrible sliced pieces of pressed and grilled chicken, is not only worth skipping but worth protesting. I've found it on other local Middle Eastern menus, and it's never failed to make my gorge rise.
But that's about it. The baklava's ($1.69) moist and flaky, though whether it's made in-house (says Hashemi) or ordered from outside (says an employee) is still up for debate. Either way, it's a nice end to a pretty good meal. And not only do you not have to leave your country for it, but thanks to the leftover drive-through, you don't even have to leave your car.