Before we continue, let’s make this clear: the gyro is a gift to us from the Greek gods. What we have here is a pita—drenched in olive oil, doused in delicious tzatziki sauce, and wrapped in tin foil—typically filled with shaved-off strips of beef or lamb, lettuce, tomatoes, onions, and, depending on who you talk to, maybe even a fry or two. The sandwich (and yes, we mean sandwich) is easily the most popular dish of Greek fare in New York, a favorite during lunch hours (numerous napkins necessary), dinner hours (napkins on lap or as bib), and after hours (no napkins necessary). And the best place in the city to find the prized Mediterranean gem is undoubtedly Astoria.
For decades, this Queens locale (which already sounds like a Greek isle) existed as an East River port for newly landed immigrants from the Aegean. More recently, however, Eastern European, Arab, and Latin American arrivals have mashed up the area’s cultural and culinary identity to melting pot levels. Regardless, the still-strong signs of Astoria’s original transplants are everywhere, from the signs for Greek singers plastered all over scaffolds, to the blue and white flags seen dangling from balconies. And then, of course, there’s the gyro.
So, please, people: get more napkins. Here are the five best damn gyros Astoria has to offer.
John Surico is a contributor to the New York Times. He also lives in Astoria, and is probably putting olive oil on something right now. @JohnSurico
Address and phone: 27-02 Astoria Boulevard (718-932-7858)
Good for: Friends from Brooklyn and Manhattan who want to score a killer lunch combo
This is where most natives point to as the sandwich’s heralded home. Located off the beaten path, there’s a reason why folks come far and wide to line up for the $10 weekday lunch special, which includes a gyro, fries, and a soda to wash it all down. The fries can be upgraded to Greek, which, yes, means that they’re covered in tangy feta. The pita alone could be a meal, but you’re here for the meat (including the sausage, which we recommend once you’re done). Be sure to check out the brizolaki (Greek pancetta). Come talk to us after.
ZORBA’S SOUVLAKI PLUS
Address and phone: 29-05 23rd Ave (718-956-7266)
Good for: Outdoor mass gyro consumption
One of the recurring themes at these Astoria gyro joints is the aesthetic. Most feel like homes, decked out with portraits, calendars, or murals of the specific Greek island where the family who runs the place hails from. Sounds of boukie, the traditional Greek guitar, can be heard overhead. There is nothing stuffy about these places, and Zorba’s hits that sentiment of simplicity right on target. There’s an outdoor area in front to enjoy the sandwich on the bustling 23rd Avenue, but you can always head inside to see frames of local celebrities or family members hanging on the walls. The mission: get on that wall, too. But you’ll probably be too busy mopping up the last bit of olive oil, pita in hand.
Address and phone: 28-44 31st Street (718) 728-3638
Good for: Post-subway-during-rush-hour gyro therapy.
Something about Opa! reminds me of “My Big Fat Greek Wedding.” Maybe it’s the paper machete decor of the indoor garden in the back—meant to resemble waves rolling off the Mediterranean and into your enormous Greek salad; or possibly it’s the tower of lamb roasting on a spit that greets you when you walk through the restaurant’s doors. Whatever it is, Opa!, of course, wins the best name game, and remains a solid destination for the gyro seeker. Tucked away underneath the columns of the aboveground N/Q subway line, this hole-in-the-wall is run and frequented by the older, native crowd (and probably the same spot where your yaya would go to eat). That means you should place every ounce of your trust in the bifteki (beef) sandwich, which is less than $6.
Photo: Yelp/Bradley H.
Address and phone: 28-01 Steinway Street (718) 274-4870
Good for: A straight shot, no-frills gyro for the people.
There’s this weird thing that happens in Astoria where restaurants will introduce themselves to customers as pizzerias, but serve other incredible dishes that make the pizza look like a waste of time—like Emilia’s, which offers up pepperoni slices but fails to tell people that it also cooks up some of the best Mexican food I’ve tasted this side of the Hudson. The same goes for Gyro Uno. The pizzeria-diner hybrid should stick to its namesake: ditch the cheese, and load up on lamb. Fork up a couple of extra bucks, too, and you’ll get the entire plate, which adds another Greek staple that this spot on Steinway does real well: lemon potatoes.
Address and phone: 34-10 31st Avenue (718) 956-0133
Good for: Portions that were meant for a Texas steakhouse.
Listen—if you and your friends pay $25 each for the 14-to-16 course tasting menu, you’re basically served everything this cozy Greek and Cypriot restaurant has to offer. That warning aside, the gyro sandwich platters here are spectacular: pork or chicken souvlaki, pork meatballs (sheftalia), pork loin (lunza), and lamb meatballs. To stay traditional, I vote for the last pick, but none will disappoint, nor cost you more than $13. Pro tip: ask for more tzatziki, and, if you go with the large size, fast for a few hours beforehand.