Editor’s note: This is the fourth installment in our street food series this week, featuring dispatches on the best streetside eating in all the cities Culinary Backstreets covers.
Before we get down to the business of discussing the best of Athens’ street food, a disclaimer: Athens is at a disadvantage when it comes to streetside eats. For one thing, a lot of venues – souvlaki joints, pizza parlors and even offal soup places – are open all night or even 24/7; they are just not serving on the street, though. Whatever the reason, there are really just two main street foods in Athens: koulouri, which is eaten early in the morning or really, really late at night, and old-fashioned hot dogs, for people who have had a bit to drink and are looking for something greasy and filling.
Greeks are not a nation of breakfast eaters, so koulouri, a plain, circular bread topped with sesame seeds, tends to be the morning fare of choice for most people. There is something seriously sweet and fresh about these bread rings, which are sold on most street corners in downtown Athens. The bread must be eaten fresh, so it is best consumed early in the morning or at places that have high turnover. In recent years, koulouri has evolved similarly to bagels in the United States, with new flavors that have been created in addition to the traditional plain variety. There is now koulouri with cheese (usually feta), koulouri with chocolate (not our personal favorite), koulouri with cream cheese (an interesting option but not for the summer months, as it tends to melt) and our absolute favorite, koulouri stuffed with black or green olives.
Though there are numerous koulouri vendors in Athens, three in particular stand out for us. Our preferred stand usually runs out before 2 p.m., due to its central, well-trafficked location opposite the old Church of Agii Theodori in downtown Athens, at the intersection of Dragatsaniou and Evripidou, an area home to a number of banks and public services as well as part of the Media Department of the University of Athens. What we love about this place is that the guy also sells small portions of yellow cheese or triangular white cheese (the brand of choice here is good old La vache qui rit) to go with your koulouri. Though nothing fancy, it turns out to be quite a lovely breakfast on the go.
For pure freshness, another perennial favorite of ours is the stand outside Zara on Ermou Street in Syntagma. The man who runs it always asks how you prefer your koulouri (well-baked or not so well-baked). We’re also partial to the koulouri stand located just where Stadiou meets Paparigopoulou near Klafthmonos Square. This guy is famous for two things. The first is the quality of his koulouri, which is made with extra leavening and has more of a sourdough taste than most versions. The second is the guy’s fantastic banter. When you ask for koulouri he asks, “How many?” If you reply, “One” he always says, “One equals none.”
These days, a bakery named To Koulouri tou Psyri – situated in the once hip and happening neighborhood of Psyri (aka Psirri) – supplies koulouri to most of the street stands around Athens. To Koulouri started in the ’90s as a tiny, humble, hole-in-the-wall bakery for all of the young people who partied in the area. Psyri may no longer be fun and hip, but the bakery has become one enormous shop that is open virtually 24/7 and it makes a great stop after a night out drinking.
Hot Dog Trucks
Our two favorite vromiko – a colloquial term for food trucks – are both located in downtown Athens and serve hot dogs and sandwiches until the early hours of the morning. We’re also quite fond of two other hot dog trucks, the first of which goes by the name Johnie Hot Dog. This bright red truck is parked on busy Syngrou Avenue outside Panteion University, Athens’ university for the social and political sciences. This is an almost gourmet hot dog truck, which offers four different types of sausages and a number of “exotic” extras, such as jalapeños. Our favorite is the Athenian version of a corn dog, a frankfurter sausage served with sweet corn, cheddar cheese and mayo. At night there is often mayhem here as Syngrou is home to a number of strip joints, bouzouki places and nightclubs.
The infamous Meraklis food truck is stationed at the edge of the Phaleron neighborhood, close to both the marina and the tram lines. Meraklis specializes in what one could call the down-and-dirty version of a giant charcuterie sandwich, which is a veritable protein fest – salami, mortadella, ham, smoked bacon turkey and gouda cheese (you can even opt for blue cheese for that extra spicy kick) all in the same sandwich. This is a meat-lovers’ sandwich for those who are either super-hungry, excessively drunk or, as is usually the case, both.
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