A tasty spin on slow cooking

August 14, 2009 (CHICAGO) The method has evolved over the years, taking a more vertical approach. It also spans several different cultures.

Whether you call them gyros, shawarma or al pastor, the technique of marinating meat, assembling it on a vertical spit and then cooking it until the edges are slightly crisp is, thankfully, widely available in Chicago.

We found three distinctive restaurants, representing three cultures, all making their own delicious versions of what would otherwise be known as 'street food.'

Maybe it's because of Chicago's place as the birth of the modern gyro. Or perhaps it's just because we love eating juicy slices of beef, lamb, chicken or pork. Whatever it is, the local appetite for these classic, vertical rotisserie-cooked meats is seemingly endless. Take chicken shawarma, for example.

At Taboun - which prepares kosher, Israeli-style food at both its West Rogers Park and Skokie locations - they start with marinated chicken piled high on the spit, then slowly-cooked, rendering them juicy and moist, yet crisp outside.

In Edison Park, the legendary Nick's Drive-In makes a pretty bold boast about its gyros, which consist of freshly-ground beef and lamb, with a ratio of about three-to-one.

"People they are used to Nick's gyros. That is why we say they are the Best gyros in America," said George Lekas of Nick's Drive-In.

Lamb and beef are combined with a giant steel blade along with oregano, fresh garlic, salt and pepper. The ground mixture is then hand-formed and trimmed around tall, steel rods, which eventually are housed in those familiar vertical broilers you see in just about every Greek restaurant. Once the exterior is brown and crispy, they're sliced with precision.. placed directly onto pita bread that's been lightly griddled.. then topped with raw onions, homemade tzatziki - a yogurt sauce - and some fresh tomatoes.

Tacos are, of course, a big deal in Mexico, but the only ones requiring a vertical spit are tacos al pastor. At Zacatacos - which has four locations, including this one in Berwyn - pork butt or shoulder is marinated overnight in chiles and spices, then topped with fresh pineapple before going onto the rotisserie.

"It just kinda marinates there overnight, usually you thinly slice the pork. You can do pork butt or pork shoulder, and you just put it on the spindle, let it rotate and the pineapple and the juices just start simmering in there," said Indalia Acuna of Zacatacos.

Once it's sliced, it's cooked a bit more on the grill, then placed into corn tortillas, topped with chopped onions and fresh cilantro. If you can, ask for a little fresh pineapple as well.

"An infusion of flavors in your mouth that you don't get even from steak. Cause you taste the sweetness from the pineapple and onion. And it is just more flavor," Acuna said.

One more version comes by way of your neighborhood Turkish restaurant: the Doner kebab is usually made from lamb, but sometimes beef is used. Also served in a pita, it typically has both a yogurt and a hot sauce.

Nick's Drive-In
7206 N. Harlem Ave.

Zacatacos (3 locations)
3949 W. 71st Street

6224 W. Cermak Rd., Berwyn

17 S. Wabash

Taboun (2 locations)
6339 N. California

8808 Gross Point Rd., Skokie

Also mentioned:

Pita Inn (3 locations)
3910 Dempster St., Skokie

122 S. Elmhurst Rd., Wheeling

9854 N. Milwaukee Ave., Glenview

Flaco's Tacos
725 S. Dearborn St.

For Turkish doner kebab:
Turkish Cuisine
5605 N. Clark St.

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