Before I even bite into the succulent pork tucked into a pillow-soft pita, I realize how sheltered my life has been, gyro-centrically speaking. I’d guess that 99.8 percent of the gyros I’ve consumed were shaved from one of those dense, prefabricated beef and/or lamb cones that rotate on skewers everywhere. The other 0.2 percent came from Yamas Mediterranean Grill, which meticulously builds its own towers from freshly marinated beef and lamb. Never once in all my wanderings have I sampled a pork gyro, which I’ve learned is the prevalent one in Greece.
I must admit that I obsessed over this issue extensively: Americans have a tradition of pairing pork with tangy tomato-based or vinegary mustard-based sauces or even with sweet maple glazes. We don’t typically turn to a milk-based sauce, like tzatziki, to smother our pig. Which is our loss, because the pork gyro at Yia Yia’s is, to bottom-line it, superb. The thin slices of pork are crisped and surrounded by tzatziki, tomatoes, red onions, cilantro and a few house-made french fries. It’s a sandwich that overflows with both ingredients and savory, silky flavor.
Not surprising, Yia Yia’s comes from a family with a long history in Greek restaurants. Owner Michael Harrison, 34, has seen the industry from the inside since he was a teen, busing tables for his stepfather, Pete Gouskos, who owns the Parthenon in Chevy Chase. Harrison had absorbed enough lessons to know what he wanted — and didn’t want — when he launched his own place. With Yia Yia’s, he merrily jettisoned the alcohol and the servers. He had no interest in “wait-staff drama.”
Harrison’s operation is lean and singularly focused, which lets him place his full attention on the concise menu of dishes, many of which are based on family recipes that go back generations. Greek speakers will instantly decode the eatery’s name: “Yia yia” is a loving term for grandma, and Harrison has a deep affection for his maternal grandmother, Georgia Triantis, a Greek immigrant who also toiled in the restaurant industry. She died just months before Harrison opened Yia Yia’s in August.
“She was my best friend, my confidant,” he says.
Let me try to say this without offending my kin: I’ve never known any relative, from grandparents on down, whose recipes or skills could result in dishes as refined as those at Yia Yia’s. Perhaps you think I’m exaggerating, but there was such elegance and craft in some of Yia Yia’s dishes that I strained to remember I was in a fast-casual spot with harsh florescent lighting. Credit chef Fredys Delao, a veteran kitchen soldier, who leads a team that makes almost everything in-house.