A whisper of the Mediterranean – right here in Rehoboth Beach
One of the things I miss about living in the Washington, D.C. area is the variety of ethnic eateries. I long in particular for Lebanese Taverna, a small chain of Middle Eastern spots owned by the extended Abi-Najm family. They have been fire-roasting puffy pitas, stuffing grape leaves (mahshi wara’ enab to the Middle Easterners; dolmas to our Greek foodies) and hand-forming kibbee (bulgur, minced onions, and ground lamb or beef shaped into balls with Middle Eastern spices) since 1979. One of my happy places is plopping at the bar at Connecticut Avenue and Calvert Street, sipping a frosty Almaza pilsner and waiting for my babaghanouj appetizer.
There are several spots here at the beach where I can still relive some of those good times, and one thing they all have in common is the popular gyro sandwich. These pita rounds, folded taco-like and stuffed with shawarma (pronounced shwarm-uh: spiced and marinated lamb, chicken or beef roasted on a vertical spit) are the street food of choice around the Mediterranean. The Greeks call them gyros (please, please pronounce it yeer-oh); meaning, “turn,” i.e., the meat rotating on the spit. But whatever you call it, thin strips of that prepared meat are sliced off of the sizzling loaf and folded into a warm pita with lettuce, tomato and tzatziki (I like to add diced cucumbers, too).
In Turkey, people line up for the döner kebab, a pita sandwich stuffed with a combination of meats shaved from that rotating and self-marinating loaf. This and the popular Greek gyro are quite similar, with only regional differences to distinguish them. Here in Rehoboth Beach, you can treat yourself to various styles, some with a Wilmington Avenue flair; others with a Rehoboth Avenue accent or some hailing from a seaside region known as The Boardwalk.
Kosta Tsoukalas at Robin Hood, Kevin Salamah at Sammy’s Kitchen and Leo Cabrera at Modern Mixture dish up gyro sandwiches in the shawarma tradition (the meat is grilled in strips rather than cut off the rotisserie). And the crowning touch for all these sandwiches is the tzatziki, a cool and refreshing yogurt/cucumber sauce called cacik in Turkey. There are as many recipes for this snow-white dressing as there are smiling Greek and Middle Eastern restaurateurs. The base is Greek yogurt, though some may throw in a little sour cream. They’ll probably add crushed garlic. Red wine vinegar? Maybe. Definitely cucumbers - chopped or pulsed in the processor, then salted and drained. Lemon? A little olive oil? Probably. Dill, mint or sumac? Maybe, maybe not. It all comes down to how grandma made it back in the Old Country.
The Svolis family at Gus & Gus’ Place on the Boardwalk at Wilmington Avenue has opted for the rotisserie version of gyro sandwiches. The same goes for Semra’s Mediterranean Grill just a few steps from the Boardwalk on Rehoboth Avenue. John Tekmen and his wife Semra even installed a second spit so they can offer the lamb/beef and the chicken versions at the same time. They also acquired a full-size deck oven where they bake their own pita bread. Out on Coastal Highway, Petru Cornescu also uses the vertical roasting system for his gyro sandwiches at Pete’s Steak Shop.
Ethnic places at the beach may be few and far between, but there’s no shortage of savory meats tucked into warm pita and slathered with tzatziki. The humble gyros might have been Americanized over the years, but the basic version still satisfies those Middle Eastern and Greek cravings. Give them all a try and tell me your favorite.