You know, there are actually plenty of places to eat in Seattle that aren’t particularly high-minded or chef-driven. Shocking, I know! Obviously you can’t eat at The Corson Building every week. In fact, many of the little delis or taco trucks that I often frequent are worthy of mention, even if they might not be as exciting to read about as Ethan Stowell’s latest venture. And clearly there is merit in identifying the best hot dog vendor in Seattle. Such declarations can be fertile ground for heated debate and discussion. So in that spirit, I’m going to turn my attention now to some of the lesser celebrated work horses around town. Some of these restaurants may be distinguished in their own right, some of them may be overlooked gems, and all of them are going to cost you a hell of a lot less than omakase at Nishino.
So! Let us begin with the humble gyro. Specifically Nikos Gyros, which has the dubious honor of being the only reason anybody should ever bother visiting Magnolia. Seriously, I may poke fun at West Seattle from time to time, but that’s nothing compared to the fervent disdain I have for Magnolia. (Let’s say your friends are helping you move into your new apartment, and something unexpectedly shifts in the moving van en route and a piece of furniture topples out when you open the door. Say you dash back to the apartment to find some gauze and Band-aids and a compress and ohmygod I hope it’s not broken. Magnolia is the kind of place where a bitter old Chardonnay divorcée will ride the elevator up one floor and furiously reprimand you for running in the hallway. I’m not even kidding. Welcome to Magnolia).
Tucked away at the edge of the Magnolia Village (*shudder*), Nikos Gyros is completely family-run and it feels like it. Opened by George Serpanos over a decade ago (and named after his grandson), Nikos is now headed by Serpanos’ daughter Alex, who can be found behind the counter nearly every single day (and George himself still swings through from time to time on a delivery run). Alex has a million-watt smile and knows virtually everybody by name. The space is comfortable, if a little kitschy. The walls are painted blue and white, and are lined with maps of Greece and ceramic pots and fake grapes. There is a mural celebrating the 2004 Olympics in Athens. A bottle of home-made salad dressing is placed on each of the dozen or so tables. It’s all very bright and cheerful.
Down to business – for $4.25, the Traditional Gyros are a mixture of lamb and ground beef wrapped in a pita bread with onions, lettuce, tomato and tzatziki sauce. The tender, thin grilled strips of meat are seasoned with garlic and rosemary and black pepper. The creamy tzatziki is also made with a ton of garlic, and is generally applied with restraint. Bits of red onion lurk in the sauce, waiting for a chance to strike. The pita bread is fluffy and chewy and holds together well, the tomato is juicy, the lettuce is crisp. Even better than the Traditional Gyros would be the Falafel Gyros. Attention Vegetarians: Nikos has the best falafel in Seattle, hands down. The ground chickpeas and parsley are lightly fried and stuffed into a pita with the usual suspects. These falafel are particularly light and nutty, with just a touch of spicy heat. I love them. You can add feta cheese to any of the gyros (actually, you can pretty much add feta to anything on the menu). One word of warning: stay away from the halibut special. It’s actually reheated fishsticks à la Taco del Mar, and a rare misstep on the menu.
There are lots of great combination plates and side orders to choose from – creamy hummus, tangy dolmades, grilled chicken souvlaki kebabs. The specialty plates come with a Greek salad and pita bread and either Greek fries or rice, but either of the latter are worth checking out on their own. The rice is a fluffy, saffron-colored pilaf that tastes like butter and lemon. The Greek fries are a fan favorite, dusted with oregano and sprinkled with more of that feta cheese. They are light and lemony, little crinkled rounds of potato – crispy on the outside, soft on the inside.
There’s a passable selection of wine and beer to choose from, but you may as well take your order to go and head over to Discovery Park (you came all the way out to Magnolia didn’t you? Although I would hardly blame you if you just want to beat a hasty retreat). But still, I’m telling you it’s worth the trip. And my very favorite part about Nikos is actually something I never noticed until last year. It’s easy to overlook, but it speaks volumes. On the other side of the counter, tucked away behind the register is a tiny black and white photograph of Anthony Bourdain, patron saint of The Real. Seeing that little photo taped up there pretty much confirmed everything I already knew.