February 16, 2011

The Taste Bud: Chicago Gyros is worth a second look

I drive by Chicago Gyros nearly every day. I know exactly where it is, tucked away at 2317 Brownsboro Road across from the McDonald’s and Dirty Kroger, and yet I rarely stop.

It’s as if my eyes simply stopped seeing it one day.

“That’s the issue I have been having,” says owner Tom Hufstetler. “Anytime I put a banner up that sticks out, the city fines me, and I have to take it down. Unfortunately, Crescent Hill doesn’t like anything that sticks out.”

But Crescent Hill seems to like Hufstetler’s gyros. He celebrated three years in the tiny space on Valentine’s Day, and has in that time developed a strong lunch and dinner crowd, with plenty of regulars.

And when I stopped in recently to retry his signature gyro, well, I was re-impressed. And it was all the more impressive that — with the help of a Valpak coupon — I got the traditional Greek sandwich, crispy fries and a canned soda for just $5. (Normally, it would be $6.99.)

The gyro Hufstetler makes at Chicago Gyros is a step above most I’ve had around town; the ground lamb/beef combo is spiced to the point that it stands out in the blend of tzatziki sauce, romaine lettuce, chunks of tomato and chopped white onions. That’s the big difference in his gyro.

“It took me about two years to get that seasoning down,” Hufstetler says. “I discovered it by accident; my brother and I were up ’til 2 a.m. one night (testing recipes), and that’s the last thing we did. It tasted bad at night, but it tasted good in the morning.”

The laidback Hufstetler relocated to Louisville from the Cleveland area a few years ago with his fiancée. She’s a teacher, and he worked at a chain restaurant for a while before she started urging him to open his own place.

“One of the first places my soon-to-be wife and I went was Omar’s,” he says, referring to the now-defunct gyros joint in the Highlands. “We weren’t impressed by his sandwiches or any of the other ones around town.”

Thus, the recipe was perfected, and he took over the little lunch spot in the bad location from previous owners.

On my recent noontime visit, Hufstetler was talking with customers like they were old friends. (One table was filled with regulars from the nearby Galen College of Nursing.) I overheard him telling someone about the spicy Italian beef sandwich.

“We use fresh jalapeños, so it gets pretty hot,” he said.

The owner also recommends the Philly cheese steak, but confirms that the gyro is his favorite item on the menu, which also includes mainstays like Chicago-style hot dogs, a number of salads (including Greek) and some fried appetizers like hot wings and fried mushrooms. There’s also a catfish platter available on Fridays. And on Mondays and Saturdays, the extremely hungry in Crescent Hill can take advantage of all-you-can-eat gyros and fries for $12.

According to signs in the restaurant, starting in March the restaurant will extend its hours and be open until 4 a.m.; the “smoker-friendly” patio will soon offer a hookah as well. Chicago Gyros delivers food for a small charge, or you can call ahead to pre-order (895-3270).

But it’s the food that keeps the little lunch spot that could going. On my recent visit, I topped my gyro with a few dashes of Sriracha sauce, but I probably didn’t need to. The seasoned meat, which was cooked crisp at the edges, packed ample flavor. And the fries were cooked crisp and served in a generous portion. Honestly, I’m still kicking myself for waiting so long between visits, and don’t plan to continue my habit of driving by without stopping.

It should be noted that, in spite of his obscure location and lack of distinctive signage, Hufstetler has no plans to relocate or expand. He likes running an out-of-the-way specialty eatery.

“For me, it’s perfect,” he says. “I couldn’t handle some place that is a lot bigger. You couldn’t get to know your customers.” 

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