It’s not easy being a gastronome about town when you make less than a thousand dollars a month and have a car payment, rent and a social life. Stationed at Kirtland in the early 1980s, my Air Force salary pretty much dictated that most of my meals were at the base’s chow hall (which thankfully was legions better than the Peñasco High School cafeteria). The little that was left of my meager monthly take-home pay meant social outings were pretty much of the cheap eats variety.
The epicenter for many of my off-site meals seemed to be Cornell Drive where it was possible to find restaurants with a broad socioeconomic appeal–restaurants which nurtured a refreshing open-mindedness toward the cuisines of the world. Within easy walking distance of one another on Cornell, you could find battleship sized slices of pizza at Nunzio‘s, the very best lamb burger and green chile stew in the world at the long defunct Sheepherder’s Cafe, half a city block of full-contact eating at the Frontier Restaurant and a gourmand’s paradise of Greek food at Gyros Mediterranean.
Though my first two years in the Air Force (happily served in the Boston area) introduced me to Asian cuisine of every type, I was virginal when it came to Greek food until discovering Gyro’s Mediterranean on Cornell. Back then, this was the place to go for the eponymous gyros, a popular Greek sandwich. Gyros, a blend of lamb, beef and aromatic herbs and spices is grilled slowly on a vertical spit then sliced thinly into a pita which is topped with tomatoes, onions and tzatziki, a savory yogurt sauce loaded with garlic and cucumbers.
5 December 2015: Both Gyros, the restaurant, and I have grown up and out since then. While Gyro’s gyros are still among the best in town, the restaurant itself has added an extensive menu of Greek classics. Your best bet remains the gyros combination platter which includes a Greek salad and patates. Order it with double meat and you might have some left over to take home. By far, the very most popular side dish or appetizer at Gyros are the patates, thinly sliced homemade potato chips served warm. They’re not quite as thin as conventional potato chips, but they’re much better tasting even if a bit salty. Don’t dare desecrate these chips with ketchup.
Appetizers (mezedakia) play an important role in the Greek table. Most Greek appetizers are salty, piquant (or both) and accompanied by ouzo (a clear anise-flavored liqueur). By tradition, appetizers are meant to be eaten slowly and while they are quite delicious, their traditional purpose remains to make drinking ouzo easier. Although Gyros Mediterranean doesn’t serve ouzo, appetizers themselves are cause for celebration.
One of the most popular is the aptly named mezedakia (small plates of tasty morsels or appetizers). At Gyros, the featured tasty morsels are dolmades (vine leaves stuffed with aromatic rice), feta cheese, Kalamata olives and pita bread (all pictured below). The dolmades, although fresh and well seasoned, have a “canned” taste (very few restaurants make their own any more). The feta is of the wonderful breath-wrecking variety, definitely not recommended for a hot date. The Kalamata olives are mouth-watering with a briny flavor and meaty texture. The pita is unfailingly warm.
5 December 2015: The saganaki, a slab of bubbly Green Kasseri cheese served with pita is far superior to the de rigueur cheesy fried mozzarella offered at chain restaurants. Crisp on the outside, soft and gooey on the outside, it is expertly pan-fried at your table then extinguished with a squeeze or two of lemon. As with other Greek appetizers, saganaki is designed to be consumed in small amounts, as part of a large spread of small dishes. The saganaki by itself won’t fill you up, but it will leave you sated.
Another intensely flavored appetizer is tarama, a carp roe spread. I’ve heard tarama referred to as a “poor man’s caviar” and while I wouldn’t go that far myself, tarama is one of the most delicious things you can spread onto a piece of warm pita bread. The name for this dish is derived from the Turkish taramas, which means “preserved roe,” and salata, Italian for “salad.” The dish is made by blending the roe with olive oil, garlic, and lemon juice to create a smooth, creamy paste, then adding body to the paste with mashed potatoes or moistened breadcrumbs.
Some entrees include sides of Pepperonici and Kalamata olives, both of which are delicious. The Greek salad includes huge chunks of feta cheese, a sharp, fetid fromage. It also features red, ripe tomatoes, lettuce and a tangy Greek dressing that will enliven your taste buds. As with the gyros, the onions used on the salad are white onions which are much more flavorful than the seemingly more popular red onions.
Something else you can spread onto pita bread is potatoes. While that may sound somewhat unconventional, Greeks have long used potatoes as a vehicle for complementary ingredients. In Skorthalia, an appetizer at Gyros Mediterranean, potatoes served cold and the consistency of mashed potatoes are blended with lemon juice, garlic, olive oil and white wine. The potatoes spread easily onto the pita bread and make for an interesting starter.
Dessert options include a bevy of baklava or baklava-like sweet treats, most resplendent in a honey sheen. A nice alternative is the tongue-twisting Galaktoboureko, an inspired custard pie sandwiched between flaky phyllo dough baked until golden then drenched with a citrus-infused syrup. Don’t buy the Homeric myth that the Trojan War started over Helen of Troy, the face that supposedly launched a thousand ships. the Trojan War started over Galaktoboureko, an epic dessert!
Though this gastronome about town can now afford more than the cheap eats of my youth, I still return often to Cornell where some of the deliciously diverse diners that sated me in my poverty are still appeasing patrons of every wallet size.
106 Cornell, S.E.
Albuquerque, New Mexican
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LATEST VISIT: 18 December 2016
# OF VISITS: 20
BEST BET: Gyros, Patates, Tarama, Galaktoboureko, Spanakipita, Saganaki