The World’s Best Gyros?

The Italians have their pizza, Mexicans have tacos, America is the home of the cheeseburger, the Germans dig their sausages and the French eat crepes. In almost any country there is one ubiquitous food staple budget travelers can count on for inexpensive sustenance. I recently spent six weeks in the Greek Isles, where the Gyro is king.

By my own informal calculation, I think I ate about 30 gyros while in country. I’d hate to have my cholesterol checked, but I’d guestimate that my level went from 210 to about 250 while in Greece. So my arteries might be very clogged, but I had some awfully good gyros and never spent more than €2.5 anywhere. In fact, I’d say the average price of a gyro in the Greek Isles is a paltry €2, making them a must eat treat for anyone traveling on a budget in Greece.

I got sick of eating gyros at times – I even resorted to eating at a couple of crap Mexican restaurants – but if you want something fast and cheap on the Greek Isles, there aren’t a lot of other options. Sometimes it’s hard to distinguish one gyro place from another but there was one establishment called Thraka (charcoal in Greek) in Chania on Crete that stood out from the pack.

I knew I had to try it the first time I walked past the place, which is located just past the Old Town on busy Chatzimichali Ginnari street, just down from a pet shop. While every other place had a smattering of customers, Thraka was packed with locals devouring gyros, souvlaki and kebabs. Aside from the cheap, mouthwateringly delicious gyros, you can also get a three skewer plate of souvlaki for €5 and kebabs for a ridiculous €1 each.

What makes the gyros at Thraka special? For me, it’s the quality of the pita, the meat and the tzatziki. And the fact that you leave full after spending €2 is an awfully nice bonus. My vote for world’s best gyros actually goes to a place called Samos, in Baltimore’s Greektown, but like all gyros in the U.S., they go for twice the price you pay in Greece. Check out the video but be forewarned – you’re going to want to run out and get a gyro when you see it.

Why Do I Continue To Patronize Crap ‘Mexican’ Restaurants Around The World?

I love Mexican food. In fact, I love it so much that I keep getting suckered into eating at “Mexican” restaurants with about as many Mexicans as there are Peugeot dealerships in Alabama. I’ve patronized “Mexican” restaurants in places like Newfoundland, Big Fork, Montana, Budapest and Macedonia in order to have a break from the monotony of the local cuisine and because I love Mexican food. But my experiences have ranged from appalling to mediocre.

Yet somehow I never learn my lesson and yesterday I found myself having lunch at Picasso, a Mexican restaurant on the Greek island of Naxos that claims to cook “extraordinary Mexican food.” After nearly a month in Greece, eating out at Greek places almost every day, I practically have skewers of souvlaki growing out of my ears, so when I read in the Lonely Planet Guide to the Greek Islands that this place had “world class” Mexican food, I wanted very much to believe it.The place also has rave reviews on Trip Advisor, though in fairness, most of those folks are European and, let’s face it, most Europeans wouldn’t know a good burrito if it smacked them in the face. Folks, we’re talking about a “Mexican” restaurant that plays flamenco music, is named after a Spanish painter and is owned by a Greek guy. I should have known better.

We started out with a plate of chips and salsa, which cost the equivalent of $5.35, or about what I’m used to paying for a burrito at home in a hole-in-the-wall type place. Chips and salsa should be free, but if you’re going to charge for it, it had better be damn good and this wasn’t – it was just a big blob of massive chunks of tomato with some other stuff thrown in.

My wife and I both ordered enchiladas and the first thing I noticed when it arrived was that there were no enchiladas; there was just an enchilada, as in one, which looked suspiciously like a burrito. It had no sauce on top, but rather just some hunks of tomato inside the thing. It was completely dry and flavorless, and cost the equivalent of $15. It came with a tiny side of rice and beans that was actually a pile of rice with about six or seven lonely little black beans sprinkled inside.

But as aggressively mediocre as that experience was, it wasn’t my worst Mexican meal ever – not by a long shot. In fact, I’ve been to at least three other “Mexican” restaurants around the world that were significantly worse. Once, my wife and I convinced ourselves that we should try a “Mexican” restaurant in St. John’s, Newfoundland, one of the whitest, least Mexican places on earth, based on the strength of a magazine article posted outside the place.

The place had been named the best Mexican restaurant in Newfoundland by a local magazine, but we later found out that it was also the only Mexican restaurant in Newfoundland, which, at least in my eyes, diminished the stature of the award just a touch. We had to explain to the waitress, who, in fairness to her, said it was her first day on the job, what the difference between nachos and chips and salsa was.

After about an hour wait, she brought us a couple of burritos that looked like someone had vomited on them, and for all we know, perhaps someone had (likely another diner).

We lived in Macedonia for two years, about a decade ago, and there was a sad little “Mexican” restaurant in a strip mall in the Kapistec neighborhood that served Doritos and had no real tortillas or anything else resembling “Mexican” food. I’m quite certain we were the only patrons they ever had and we only went there occasionally just to have a laugh.

But if I had to give an award for worst Mexican restaurant it would go to a place I was almost thrown out of a couple years ago – an all-gringo “Mexican” place in Big Fork, Montana, near Glacier National Park. I ordered an enchilada-style burrito with red sauce on it for takeaway and it was easily the most revolting dish I’ve ever seen in my life.

It was absolutely swimming in a nasty ketchup-like red sauce, and even after I drained the Styrofoam container into the toilet, the tortilla itself was disgustingly wet and soggy. The chicken was grisly, dark meat and after two bites, I just couldn’t do it. I brought it back, more just to let them know how bad it was than to secure a refund, but when the young lady gently insisted I try something else, I acquiesced.

I sat and waited a half hour for them to make me some fajitas and then when they were ready, the young lady wanted to charge me for both the burrito and the fajitas, albeit with a 50 percent discount on the burrito. I took one look at the dodgy looking fajitas and told her no thanks, and then the owner came out and berated me.

“We’ve been in business for seven years and you’re only the third person that’s sent a dish back,” he yelled. “Now if you don’t like our food you can just get the hell out of here!”

And he was serious too! I left a negative review for the restaurant on Trip Advisor, and the owner sent me a private message stating that he was “sorry, very sorry.” It was an interesting approach to customer service, to say the least.

Now, at this point, you’re probably thinking I’m a hardcore foodie snob, who only likes the very best, most authentic Mexican food. I’m actually not that picky; in fact, I love eating out in Mexico, but I also like the chain burrito joints like Baja Fresh, Chipotle and so on.

After this latest Mexican food debacle in Greece, I have a new rule of thumb: if you’re looking for good Mexican food, take a look around. Are there any Mexican people within a 100-mile radius? No? Well then, why they hell are you eating in a “Mexican” restaurant? There are some non-Mexicans capable of making great Mexican food and there are some Mexicans who can’t cook to save their lives, but from now on, I’ll stick to the local cuisine wherever I am – no matter how tiresome it may be.

UPDATE 6/21: Today I passed a “Mexican” restaurant in Santorini called Senor Zorbas, which advertised All You Can Eat BBQ Ribs. And I didn’t even stop, except to take this photo. Now that’s progress.

Gadling’s Annual Team Summit: Behind The Scenes In Washington, DC

As our daily roster of posts and rigorous travel schedules can attest, we work hard here at Gadling (really; it’s not all lying on beaches, slurping pastel-hued cocktails…in fact, it rarely is). We’re a small team of freelancers who mostly have day jobs to help pay the bills, whether or not writing is our primary occupation.

As part of AOL, we also have a pretty intense set of goals, including budgetary and company requirements to meet. That’s one of the main reasons our intrepid, workaholic Editor-in-Chief, Grant Martin, plans a yearly team summit for us. It’s a way to talk shop, brainstorm, work on improving our effectiveness and skill as travel writers, bond with one another, and get a working vacation in a city that for many of us is a new destination.

In the last four years, team summits have been held in Chicago, Austin, New York and, most recently, Washington DC. From May 4-6, sixteen of our contributor crew of 20 headed to the nation’s capital, coming from as far away as Northern Spain (Sean McLachlan, who none of us feel sorry for), Maui (Kyle Ellison, ditto) and Northwest DC (Melanie Renzulli). We stayed at the Courtyard Marriott Dupont Circle, right across the street from the infamous Hilton where former President Reagan took a bullet. There’s history on every corner in DC, let me tell you.

Read on to learn more about the cultural sights and flavors of DC, how many travel writers it takes to name the only autonomous country never to fire a single gunshot, why DC cops are the greatest, and when to use “dollar” as a verb. Names have been changed where indicated to protect…myself (from retaliation).

May 4
With most of the team not arriving until late afternoon, our summit officially kicks off at 7:30 p.m. with an extended Happy Hour at 701 Restaurant, a downtown lounge with live jazz. Two early DC arrivals, however, had taken advantage of a “2 for 1” happy hour at a nondescript establishment across the street from the hotel – let’s call them “Jane” and “Bob.” Jane, who’d suggested going in, thought it was a dive bar but Bob was well aware it was, in fact, a sleazy strip joint. Jane was reportedly quite embarrassed, as she’d just met Bob five minutes prior, but a good drink special is hard to pass up.

Like Jane and Bob, many of us are meeting for the first time – an occupational hazard. The evening is casual, and most of us catch up on gossip, get to know one another and talk shop. Several enjoyable hours later, we splinter off into groups: those of us who want to call it a night and enjoy the balmy weather by walking back to the hotel, and those who want to tear it up. Sweet dreams.

May 5
11:30 a.m. Noon: Most of the team gathers at DC’s Eastern Market, a historic public food hall, for a walking “Food Tour of Capitol Hill.” Led by DC Metro Food Tours, which also offers cultural culinary visits to Little Ethiopia, Adams Morgan and other neighborhoods and nearby cities, it’s a way for us to get our writerly juices flowing, as well as learn a bit about the area. It’s also a potential means of generating income, whether we write it up for Gadling or try to sell a story to another outlet. Travel writers: always working.

We have an abbreviated tour due to time constraints, but spend an interesting two hours learning the history of Capitol Hill, particularly Barracks Row, an enchanting micro-neighborhood of tree-lined streets and sweet little row houses. Historical points of interest include the birthplace of musician John Philip Sousa, the Marine Commandant’s home and the Navy Yard.

DC is well known for its ethnically diverse cuisine, which is due to both its immigrant history and the number of embassies located within the city. Capitol Hill, the largest Victorian neighborhood, has, over the past 200 years, been occupied by laborers, craftsmen, members of Congress, the military and significant populations of African American, Latin American and European immigrants.

The three restaurants we visited were chosen for their ethnic significance and popularity. We begin with North Carolina BBQ and soul food (candied yams, collard greens, macaroni and cheese, and sweet tea) at the famed Levi’s Port Cafe (beloved by politicos). Our guide explains that DC is considered a bit of a Southern city due to its geographic location and the number of residents who originally hail from the South.

We move on to delicious Greek mezze at Cava Mezze, and finish up with fried yuca and manioca, carnitas and margaritas at Salvadorian restaurant Las Placitas. By the end of the tour, all of us have a better understanding of DC’s historical roots, and how they’ve developed its culinary scene.

3 p.m.: Business and Technical session at HuffPost offices downtown. The core of our visit, this team meeting is dedicated to the year’s goals and objectives, brainstorming and new media and travel industry trends. It’s also a chance for us to ask questions and get feedback from Grant on our individual and team performance and address any concerns.

One of the things Gadling is being more meticulous with this year is improving standards. We recently acquired our very own copy editor, the wonderful Robin Whitney (so if you see a typo, blame her…just kidding, Robin!).

7:30 p.m.: We meet for dinner at Station 4, a new, modern American restaurant near the Southwest Waterfront. I grab a cab with “Victoria,” her husband, Sean McLachlan, and Chris Owen. Our driver was a dapper West African gentleman clad in a funky-ass suit. He possessed a distressingly advanced vocabulary and knowledge of global politics and geography, and kept us in hysterics the entire ride. In his lilting accent, he’d ask us questions and quiz us on trivia like, “Name all of the countries in Africa that have four letters in them,” “What is the only autonomous country never to fire a single gunshot?” and “Name all of the world’s countries located within a country.”

He had no idea we were travel writers, which is good, because we were stumped most of the time. Victoria secretly videotaped the entire episode only to delete it after viewing. She explained that the shame was too great and it read like a bad joke: “A former archaeologist, a musician, a photographer, a food writer and a cruise expert get into a cab…”

After dinner (and a few too many glasses of vino), it was determined by someone that we were all going to take the Metro to a bar in Adams Morgan. We set off in clusters – keeping a posse of 16 together is damn near impossible when cabs and mass transit are involved, alcohol or no.

Thus began a new Gadling summit activity, what Pam Mandel dubbed, “Choose Your Own Adventure.” Adventure One entailed having your ATM card digested by a Metro ticket machine and being trapped underground for an hour waiting for an employee to resolve the issue. Adventure Two utilized DC’s popular Capital Bikeshare and involved a scenic tour of the city’s historic sites, culminating with a dramatic finale at the Washington Monument.

Led by a team member I’ll call “Ulysses,” it was by all accounts a weekend highlight. Especially when Ulysses, distracted by the wonder that is the Lincoln Memorial, slammed at full speed into the back of a parked police car, denting it. Fortunately, he wasn’t injured, and the tolerant officers only issued him a ticket for reckless pedaling.

A number of team members congregated at a popular watering hole called The Big Hunt, holding court until closing. Over on Adventure Four, Bob and Jane got into a debate in the cab over the name of the strip club, which piqued the interest of their fellow passengers, an angelic-looking blogger we’ll call Tiffany, and an esteemed member of the team whose identity shall heretofore be known as “Paul Theroux.”

A trip to said club ensued in the name of research. Readers should note that DC gentleman’s clubs are to be avoided on Cinco de Mayo eve because of the vast numbers of tequila-saturated frat boys in residence, rowdily “dollaring” (a term invented by Tiffany, blowing her “America’s Sweetheart” cover) the girls on stage. Bob and Jane were surprised to note that they’d already achieved “regular” status, and they’d like to go on record as saying that DC gentleman’s club staff, in their limited experience, are some of the friendliest folks you’ll ever meet in the, ah, service industry. Paul Theroux smiled inscrutably while watching the Greeks, and remarked that the evening had developed into quite the “sociological experience.”

Day Three
All rise and power down copious amounts of caffeine for the 11:30 Noon 12:30 p.m. behind-the-scenes tour of the Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History (post coming soon, so I’ll dispense with the details other than to say it was spectacular and an absolute must on your itinerary if you’re planning a visit to DC – and it’s free).

1:30 p.m.: Minus a few early airport departures, a final gathering at the HuffPost offices to hear travel writing gurus/team members Don George and David Farley do a presentation on how to craft more effective narrative travel writing. It was inspiring and interesting, even for those of us who are veterans of the genre, and made all the more enjoyable by the arrival of six pizzas ordered by Grant (Upper Crust on Pennsylvania Ave. NW does it right).

Sadly, most of us had to depart for our respective airports within the hour, but hugs all around, and promises to visit one another soon are made. All kidding aside, it was a truly memorable weekend for both work and play. I can only speak for myself (and what I gleaned eavesdropping on others) but the camaraderie and enthusiasm amongst our current team is something that’s very rare. I feel blessed to have such a fun, talented, diverse group to work with, as well as the leadership of an editor like Grant.

I should also add that it’s the first time I’ve enjoyed DC, despite eight prior visits. It’s true what they say: it’s not where you are, but who you’re with.

Special thanks to McLean Robbins and Jeremy Kressmann for their help in arranging assorted venues and activities for the summit.

[Photo credits: Lincoln Memorial, Flickr user pochacco20; row houses, Flickr user flickr-rickr; rest, Melanie Renzulli]

Comparing the food in Athens and Rome is unfair. But still…

Without realizing it ahead of time, I toured two of the great ancient empires this week: Rome and Greece.

I am in Athens this week and–aside from witnessing a street fight–I have had a good time. Part of the reason is that I am a foodie, and I love Greek food. Fortunately, most of my friends and travel buddies agree that a large part of the appeal of traveling is “the search for the next great meal”.

Last week, I was in Rome for a journalism conference. Cancer-reporting is probably not what you want to hear about, so I will stick to writing about food. I swear it is simply not possible to have a bad meal in Rome. Every little trattoria will be able to offer treasures that make your mouth water instantly. I would say the service is better in Rome that it is in Athens, and so is the bread. However, I love what the Greeks can do with an octopus…grilled, fried or marinated. It is always delicious.

I wonder which of these two cuisines is better for you. You don’t see very many fat people around in Rome or Greece…

Greetings from Crete: What’s Up with the Picture Menus?

You have to wonder about the intelligence of Crete’s tourists since virtually all the menus are not only in Greek and English, but also in pictures. These things are huge, too, usually taking up an entire entrance to a restaurant. Handy for all those people who prefer seeing a photo of a life-sized lobster before they eat it, I suppose. Or a picture of a Coke or a glass of wine, for that matter.

The worst part of it is that most of the picture menu boards are not professionally photographed; in fact they are faded and make the food look really nasty. Not that there is a particularly good way to make hummus look appetizing in a picture, but still! Seeing food dumbed down to this level in a country with such culinary delights should be illegal, I think.