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Chance are, if you bought a gyro lately, you bit into compressed meat processed in some cold, mechanized Chicago plant and then trucked frozen to your friendly Greek sandwich shop just around the corner. You see, producing gyro cones is big business, which tends to belie the breezy, Mediterranean seaside, hand-crafted image of your standard Greek deli.
Producing gyro cones in-house is also a pain in the tuccus. It requires the patient layering of one slice of marinated meat after another, beef after lamb after beef; it’s only too understandable why a Greek restaurant would just buy a processed cone from Kronos Foods in the Second City and be done with it.
The new Yamas Mediterranean Grill in Bethesda, however, prepares its own gyro rotisseries daily. No, wait, let me be more specific: Yamas makes its own gyro rotisseries two or three times a day.
“I frankly don’t trust what’s…in ground beef and what’s sold in gyros,” says veteran restaurateur Tony Alexis, who opened Yamas last month with his wife, Kelly.
Which explains why the couple hired Turkish chef, Mediha Keler, and taught her the Greek way of producing gyro meat: Keler marinates freshly sliced beef and lamb overnight in lemon juice, olive oil, and fresh herbs and spices and then painstakingly builds the gyro towers for each day’s service. The chef adds no extra fat, Alexis says; the all-natural chuck beef (which constitutes about 80 percent of the total gyro tower) provides all the necessary fat.
You notice the difference immediately when your gyro arrives at the table, wrapped in foil and lounging on a rectangular plate. The sliced strips of meat have a texture all their own, simultaneously crispy and melting and succulent, far different from the whip-snap of compressed beef and lamb that feels as if it would make a better belt than a sandwich stuffing.
Even the pita bread that comes wrapped around Yamas’ house-marinated meat is different: No, the shop doesn’t bake it in-house, but instead buys this denser pita that provides a firm, satisfying chew when you bite into it, perfect for the beef and lamb tucked inside of it. Now if only the kitchen would better balance its application of house-made tzatziki sauce, which is slathered all over the meat and pita, overwhelming the more delicate flavors buried within this otherwise terrific sandwich.
Yamas is Tony Alexis’ first restaurant in 15 years, and he has obviously been watching the trends in the hospitality industry since he went away to work in the software business with his brother. Alexis used to own a number of Northern Virginia operations like Tony’s Family Restaurant and Old Chicago Pizzeria, but now that he’s back in the restaurant fold, he’s focused on all-natural ingredients, fresh preparations, and house-made products, down to hand-cut fries prepared in olive oil. There’s a strong emphasis on fresh veggies here, too.
It is any wonder, then, that Alexis decided to name his new place Yamas? The word is Greek for “to our health” and is uttered around the dinner table, similar to how Americans raise a glass and declare, “cheers.” Perhaps that makes Alexis sound like he’s on some health-kick mission. He doesn’t appear to be. His reason for returning to restaurants is more direct and honest, if a little tongue in cheek:
“I just enjoy the restaurant business better than the software business,” he says. “Now, the economy’s so good, I decided to get back into [restaurants].”