A gyro, in the usual sense, means a kind of grayish-brown mystery meat shaved from a conical spit, stuffed into a dry pita, and folded into a sandwich. It’s often serviceable, but hardly more than that. Certainly not something you’d crave returning for, like the marvelous pork gyro ($10) at YiaYia’s Kitchen in Beltsville.
Pork is the meat of choice in Greece, rather than the typical lamb/beef blend you see in the States. At YiaYia’s, you can spot it immediately among the three upright spits. It’s the one that looks charred beyond recognition.
Not to worry. The black amounts to a kind of bark, not unlike what you’d find atop a properly tended rack of ribs, and has much more going for it than smoke. The cooks rub the meat with oregano, cinnamon, nutmeg, garlic, and paprika, among other seasonings, before setting it on its rotating spindle, where it slow-roasts at an almost glacial pace, for five or six hours. The finished product summons memories of the best dry-rub barbecue, lip-smacking and luscious. For the gyro, the sliced meat is nestled in a warm, griddled pita, along with tangy tzatziki and a dice of onions and tomatoes. For an extra $3, you can add another detail from the Greeks—a fistful of hot, hand-cut French fries.
This is an order-at-the-counter operation with a sit-down aesthetic. Owner Michael Harrison was previously a general manager at the Rockville and Clarendon locations of Cava Mezze, and before that he ran the floor at his father’s Parthenon Restaurant in Chevy Chase DC. Harrison’s aim was to come up with a place that could service the grab-and-go needs of his audience—YiaYia’s sits almost at the nexus of busy Route 1 and the Beltway—while functioning as a sort of latter-day Greek diner.
The fluorescent lights and cold, open room are not selling points, nor are the black plastic plates, but the food has more than enough rustic warmth—and finesse—to make you want to pull up a chair and stay. The spanakopita ($6), far from the sodden mass that so many versions end up as, is all lightness, flake, and crunch, despite its generous allotment of spinach and feta. The avgolemono ($5), a Greek version of chicken-and-rice soup (with a generous spike of lemon juice), has the roughly chopped carrots and celery that usually signal a grandmother’s homey efforts. (Yia yia means grandma; Harrison named the place in honor of his own, who passed away not long ago.) The Bolognese ($9) is a massive mound of well-cooked macaroni drenched in a cinnamon-spiced tomato-and-meat sauce.
The night I ordered them, the pork chops ($15) were a touch overcooked and the green beans alongside them had an institutional look. As it turned out, the beans were excellent, the dull green color a result of having been simmered slowly in a good sauce of tomatoes, onions, chicken stock, and dill.
The green beans also arrived one night on a plate with pastitsio ($10), a dish that often invites comparison to lasagna. The huge, dense square of ground beef and macaroni is topped with béchamel and haloumi cheese. Nothing subtle or fancy—just good, simple cooking at a reasonable price. The kind we can never have too much of.
YiaYia’s Kitchen. 10413 Baltimore Ave., Beltsville; 301-595-1855. Open daily for lunch and dinner.
This article appears in the December 2013 issue of Washingtonian.