Straddling the boundary of Kensington and Ditmas Park, the corner of Foster and Coney Island avenues is located in the middle of a Pakistani neighborhood.
Thronging this commercial district, which comprises several blocks, are cell phone stores, shipping agencies, 24-hour barber shops catering to cabbies, hardware wholesalers, auto repair shops, meat markets, and about two dozen halal eateries selling some combination of Pakistani curries, Middle Eastern standards like falafel and kabobs, sandwiches, and fried chicken. But tightly arrayed around the corner are three competing gyro establishments with names that could easily be confused: Gyro Hut (1043 Coney Island Ave), Gyro City (1026 Coney Island Ave), and Gyro King (1017 Foster Ave).
All three places are relatively new, and the installations inside — from rotating cylinders of meat and poultry to pristine refrigerated displays of salad items to well-polished counters — are similar looking, save for contrasting color schemes. On a recent afternoon I decided to try chicken gyros at each place, to see which one is best. Really, you can’t make a mistake going into any of them. But the question remains: how did three nearly identical institutions end up in such close proximity? Certainly, the intention must be a fight to the death, as when competing big-box pharmacies appear on adjacent Manhattan corners.
Sporting a yellow and red color scheme that extends from the outside to the crisp uniforms of the staff, Gyro Hut occupies the southeast corner of an ancient building with Dutch details set at an odd angle to the avenues, creating a mini-parking lot in front. I love the logo, which consists of the name in an odd cursive with flames like a field on fire underneath. Though the joint also peddles all sorts of fried items (shrimp, fish fillet, chicken nuggets) and tandoori-type platters (chapli kebab, lamb chops, roast salmon), the lamb and chicken gyro are prominently displayed in the front window.
The lamb gyro is much like a Greek gyro — an amalgam of herbed meat and fat resembling an inverted cone of spam. The chicken gyro is more like Middle Eastern shawarma, composed of irregular fragments of light and dark meat. Here’s the difference, though: the chicken has been tinted bright red like chicken tikka, the coating flinging off a slightly South Asian flavor. You can have the gyro meat put in a thick rolled pita or layered on rice pilaf with the salad stuff on top. The selection of salad items is breathtaking, and the 16 or so include chopped tomatoes, two kinds of raw onions, pickled Mexican jalapenos, cucumbers, pickle chips, black olives, yellow Italian peppers, etc., etc.
When I entered there was a long line, meaning I had to wait to order my sandwich. Though it was priced at $6 according to the overhead menu board, the counter guy took one look at me and immediately discounted it to $5. He offered a choice of sauces that was to be identical at all the gyro places: thick and white with plenty of raw garlic, tasting like a 50/50 combo of yogurt and mayo; a standard red hot sauce with a vinegary kick; and a green chutney like you get with your samosas. I’d decided to freestyle with the sauces and vegetable toppings at each of the three places so that all my sandwiches wouldn’t look the same.
Flecked with herbs, the white sauce rules at Gyro Hut, and if you request it the guy will splotch it all over your sandwich till you can’t even see the other ingredients. I stopped him just in time, but it was the wettest sandwich I’ve ever encountered. He urged a plastic fork on me as I left the counter, and I soon realized you can’t really eat this sandwich like a sandwich. The meat was good, the toppings were good, but unfortunately I had to lean against a newspaper distribution box outside to eat it — there’s no seating inside.
Diagonally across the corner I spotted Gyro City, which charges only $3.99 for the chicken gyro and had placed signs outside screaming that if you buy two, the third is free — reducing the price to an unbelievable $2.66 apiece. Can you find two friends to go with you? Another advantage of Gyro City is that it’s the only one of the three places with a dining room, spacious and comfortable though perhaps too well-lit, with a big flatscreen mounted on the wall. The twirling meats appeared to be identical to those at Gyro Hut, but the grill guy, who was working alone and had only a couple of customers, was putting a lot more effort into the sandwiches.
He removed a larger quantity of poultry from the steam cabinet (all the places seemed to have the poultry pre-cut). He mixed it with some chopped-up onions and variegated bell peppers and griddle-fried the whole thing as if it were a sausage-and-pepper Italian hero. The onions and peppers added flavor, and moistened the whole shebang, and I chose the green sauce instead of the white, and asked that it be added sparingly. The pile of chicken, sauce, peppers, and onions was so profuse it eclipsed the pita, and the only way to eat it was to break off little swatches of bread and use it to ferry the filling to your mouth. A delicious sandwich!
The third spot, just around the corner on Foster, is Gyro King. The decorative motif and uniform of the employees features kelly green and bright yellow. The place is part of a chain that was recently in the news because the Coney Island branch was where Abdurasul Juraboev worked, one of the three would-be ISIS terrorists who plotted to kill President Obama and blow up Coney Island. I didn’t hold this against the Foster Avenue store, where an eager-to-please crew of four, jammed into an impossibly small space that offered no customer seating, assembled my sandwich. The quantity of chicken was about half what I got at Gyro City, but it was fine poultry nonetheless, with a phantom flavor I couldn’t quite put my finger on. Was it rosewater? Another nice touch was the pickled vegetables — obviously homemade — that I saw in the vegetable display and requested. It was unlike anything either of the other places offered.
Gyro King’s sandwich at $5 was very good, but you know what? I still prefer the one at Gyro City, both for the lower price and greater quantity of filling, and also for the sauteed onions and peppers that formed part of the filling. Hooray, Gyro City!