Grilling meat is a Greek tradition that hearkens back at least to the days of Homer. In his Iliad, the poet wrote of a sacrifice of cattle to the god Apollo, after which the men “cut all the remainder into pieces and spitted them and roasted all carefully.” They feasted, they drank wine, they sang praise to Apollo and they slept, until “the young Dawn showed again with her rosy fingers.”
In modern-day Greece, spit-roasted meat, today called souvlaki, is an everyday meal. The same is true in Astoria, Queens, home to a stalwart Greek-American community for more than half a century, where you can feast on skewers for the sacrifice of only a few dollars each.
In both Athens and Astoria, pork is the default, though other meats are often available. (See our Athenian Souvlaki Primer.) The souvlaki might be served in a sandwich or on a platter, and accompanied by fries, tomato, onion and tzatziki. Or it might be presented as an individual skewer, with a little bread on the side or impaled on top, which is how we ordered it for our survey of four Astoria street vendors. By and large, we found that the most notable distinctions are not among the skewers, but among the vendors and their clientele.
When we arrived at the cart of Elpida Vasiliadis, the Souvlaki Lady, we were greeted by a “Yassas” from a fellow customer; taking our measure quickly, Ms. Vasiliadis continued the conversation in English. Born to Greek parents living in Germany, Ms. Vasiliadis was sent at the age of 13 to live with relatives who owned a restaurant in the northern Greek city of Thessaloniki. Those early years were a good preparation for the rigors of street vending; although she has operated her cart on a shady Astoria side street for three decades, most of her working hours have been spent on the sidewalk, even in the coldest weather. Only recently has she owned a cart large enough that she, and a helper, can stand inside.
The “real Greek” way to dress souvlaki, she maintained, is with nothing more than lemon and salt. Even so, five squirt bottles of different sauces are lined up within reach. So many customers want them, she noted with a little sadness. When we returned the following month, Ms. Vasiliadis remembered our order from the first visit, and she brightened when, once again, we declined the sauces in favor of lemon-and-salt simplicity.
At Franky’s Souvlaki, which sets up near a busy crossroads, some customers are greeted by a fist bump from Franky Englezos himself. His father, George, began the family business in the early 1970s as a hot dog cart; souvlaki became the featured menu item some years later. (This is a familiar pattern in New York: Many food vendors get their start by selling what customers already know well, and only when established sell what they love best.) Franky’s attracts a diverse crowd: blue-collar workers, some still wearing their reflective vests; families with young children, quietly speaking Spanish among themselves; and schoolkids, especially in midafternoon.
The “real Greek” way to dress souvlaki is with nothing more than lemon and salt.
Franky’s has expanded in recent years from a street cart to a truck with the capacity to prepare a larger menu. Now his skewers include not only pork and chicken but also beef, lamb, shrimp and sausage. (Hot dogs, too, grilled or boiled.) However, the handful of folding chairs – against a wall, under a tree and beside a trashcan – seem unchanged except by age. They’re beat-up, but they’re always occupied.
King Souvlaki also began as a street cart in 1979, though word has it that at least one marinade is prepared according to a much older family recipe. An uncle passed down the business to George and Kostas Tsampas a quarter-century ago; they have since transformed the cart into a slickly branded truck with standing room inside for a half-dozen workers (and, fitted into one outside corner, an ATM). But the setting hasn’t changed. Across the broad sidewalk and against a wall, chairs and small tables offer an informal dining area, and overhead an elevated train rumbles by every few minutes.
The customers – local lads in sleeveless T’s, office workers on break, men of leisure cradling a coffee cup from nearby Boulis Pastry (home of made-to-order loukoumades) – were almost as likely to open a conversation with us in English as to talk among themselves in Greek. We were smitten with pork and chicken skewers adorned with lemon, salt and a little oregano, but one fellow proclaimed the tidbits a tad small. (He comes instead for the gyro, which we’ll be back to try.) This fellow pointed us to another souvlaki cart only a short walk away.
Last, but certainly not least, in our survey is a humble outpost that doesn’t bear a name, though some call it Tony’s, we eventually learned. Most folks simply call this cart “the one by the bank.” We’ve never met Tony himself, but we hear that he was born just outside Athens. What we do know about him is that he oversees a tireless crew of grill men who are divided into two shifts – by day, as neighborhood regulars compare lottery tickets and dispense local wisdom, and into the wee small hours, as bar-hoppers line their stomachs before, or after, a night on the town.
And we know him through his bill of fare, which disdains the complications that come with a truck-sized operation. Charcoal, flame, meat, repeat – the essence of a small empire. The pork, properly dressed, is lemony, salty, lush in its own juices. If Homer’s men sought to replenish themselves before a homeward odyssey on New York’s uncertain subways, they would sing its praises too.