The $20 Diner visits Yia Yia’s Kitchen in Beltsville


Clockwise from top: Kokkinisto, spanakopita, pastichio and pork gyro at Yia Yia's Kitchen in Beltsville. (JUANA ARIAS/For The Washington Post)
October 31, 2013

The vertical broilers practically greet you at the door at Yia Yia’s Kitchen. The way the place is laid out, with the ordering counter to the far left, the rotisseries are the first thing you eyeball when you enter the Beltsville restaurant.

Normally, these gyro carousels would have all the appeal of a bald tire spinning slowly on its axis, with skewers loaded up with compressed meats that look like they were suctioned from an industrial-size can. But two of the rotisseries at Yia Yia’s are homemade, stacked with irregular layers of marinated pork or chicken, the slices simultaneously browning and glistening. All I can think about upon spotting them is ordering a gyro.

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.

Start with the spanakopita, these bronzed triangles of puff pastry barely held together with butter and the hand of God. They’re stuffed with a creamy mass of cheese (two, in fact: feta and one that Harrison won’t name) and sliced leeks, a mixture rich, pungent and tangy enough to shine through that flaky shell. It may be the best spanakopita you’ll ever eat. The tyropita, or ricotta and feta pie, pales by comparison, but only because it’s like comparing Arcade Fire to the Beatles. The third option in Yia Yia’s cheese triumvirate is the halloumi panini, on good and chewy flatbread, built with firm, salty cheese imported from Cyprus. The sandwich radiates a fresh, minty aroma, as it should.

The other sandwich to seek out is the chicken gyro, which, like the pork version, is prepared with skewers constructed by a local butcher. The charred lemony meat, both white and dark, is sliced thin, sometimes to the point of dehydration, which makes for an arid bite if too many fries block the chicken’s path to the tzatziki. Among the entrees, the moussaka and pastichio are essentially cut from the same fine cloth: Both are casserole squares of cinnamon-laced ground beef, almost architectural in structure, paired with different ingredients and topped with a bechamel/cheese sauce browned to the point of inducing lust. I’d give the nod to the pastichio only because it’s slightly more savory.

Virtually everything prepared with chicken shows well, whether the avgolemono soup (bright with lemon and thickened with long-cooked rice, like congee) or the Greek-style baked chicken (its flesh juicy, acidic and aromatic all at once). The rare dishes that I’d bypass can be chalked up to my own preferences, not to any technical errors: I generally prefer garlic pungency over tahini bitterness in my hummus and am increasingly bored of large meat piles, such as the mound of slow-roasted short ribs atop fries softened with beef juices. It was the definition of one note.

As I type this, I can see my grandmother’s fallen face whenever I’d reject something perfectly tasty. Is there anything worse than disappointing a family elder? Michael Harrison doesn’t have this problem. Yia Yia’s would have made his yia yia proud.

Yia Yia’s Kitchen

10413 Baltimore Ave., Beltsville. 301-595-1855. www.yiayias-kitchen.com.

Hours: Monday-Friday 10:30 a.m. to 9 p.m.; Saturday-Sunday
11 a.m. to 9 p.m.

Nearest Metro station: Greenbelt, with a 1.7 walk to the restaurant.

Prices: Sandwiches and entrees, $7-$15.

Tim Carman serves as the full-time writer for the Post's Food section and as the $20 Diner for the Weekend section, a double duty that requires ingesting more calories than a draft horse.
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