Since leaving NYC five years ago now, whenever anyone asks me what I miss most about my previous home my answer has remained consistent: my friends and the food. Since I go back to New York often, I never long for either that much, but the pandemic has changed that as I'm tied down in North Carolina. While I've been able to connect with friends via Zoom well enough, that medium obviously doesn't work for food, and I've found on of my major 2020 cooking themes are dishes I'm missing from NYC. Among those are pork gyros.
Prior to visiting Greece, I had only encountered gyro loafs, which never really clicked with me, but I found real deal gyros are actual more akin to shawarma with layers of seasoned meat piled high on a vertical rotisserie, sliced off to order and filled in a pita with tomato, red onion, fries, and tzatziki. The best of the best of this style of gyro I've ever had was at BZ Grill in Astoria, whose gryo meat had such a pork intensity and struck that perfect balance between crispy and juicy meat, that it stood out in crowded field in the heavily Greek neighborhood. So when I decided to try my hand at pork gyros recently, that's what I was trying to emulate.
I started off by whipping up a batch of tzatziki. When I lived in Astoria this dip comprised of Greek yogurt, cucumber, lemon juice, garlic, and dill was easy to come by and I didn't make my own very often. That's not the same in North Carolina, and it's probably a good thing that I'm forced to always make my own because homemade does taste better with a fresher flavor that both my wife and I find addictive—this time around I made a double recipe from what I normally do because we can't stop ourselves from eating it all up too quickly.
The tzatziki came first because it needed some time in the fridge for all the flavors to meld together. While that was happening, I began preparing the pork by putting together the seasoning mixture. In true Greek fashion, oregano was the backbone of this with an equal amount of salt, and then lesser amounts of paprika and black pepper.
Pork shoulder is the cut of choice for gyros with its high fat content being ideal for keeping the meat juicy and flavorful during the long cooking times usually endured on the rotisserie. I had placed my pork shoulder pieces in the freezer for about an hour prior to preparation so they would be firm, making them easier to cut into the required thin slices.
After cutting the pork into 1/4-inch slices, I coated them all generously with the seasoning mixture. Now, if I were making this at a Meatwave where I might have 20-30 guests, I would have found a way to load up the meat onto my rotisserie for the most authentic and delicious results, but I was cooking for only two and had to consider another way to get to juicy and crispy meat in a small package.
I decided utilizing a loaf pan would be a great way of doing this. I had actually done this once before in trying to develop a small scale al pastor recipe, but in that attempt I used the loaf pan for molding, then cooked the meat outside of the tray, which led to mixed results. This time around I wanted to cook the meat in the pan, which would hold the loaf of meat together better and also potentially simulate the rotisserie method as the tray would hold the rendering fat, cooking the meat in it. While layering the meat into the pan, I added in the one additional seasoning ingredient of red wine vinegar, which I drizzled on between each new layer of pork.
I then put the loaf pan over indirect heat on the grill, covered, and let it roast. I knew this would take over an hour, so I used that time to make what I consider a crucial gyro add-in—french fries. In my experience, fries are common for shawarma and gryos in their home countries, but for reasons I don't comprehend, it's not common in the US. I used my usual fry method here, which first cooks the potatoes at 325°F until they're limp and tender. Then, a second fry at a hotter temperature is needed to finish them, but that happened right before serving.
From my experience making countless pork shoulders at this point in my life, I knew a sweet spot for the most tender and juicy meat is between 196-203°F, so I let the pork cook until it hit that temperature. Unlike with pulled pork though, since this meat was in a pan and cooking in its own rendering fat, this temperature only took about one and half hours to be reached, compared to the twelve-plus hours a barbecued pork butt might take. I had to refuel once during the cook to maintain a medium heat in the grill, which was good because the fire was still plenty hot when the loaf was ready.
I wanted that heat because my plan was to sear the pork loaf to achieve a well browned and crispy exterior to mimic that outer layer of a spinning gyro that gets crusty from the hot fire it's exposed to. You may notice I have some skewers in my loaf, which I did because I was unsure how well the layers of meat would hold together on their own, but I found the loaf was well fused by the time it was done cooking and the skewers were pretty unnecessary, so they're not in the final recipe.
After searing the exterior of the pork all over, it was time to get everything in order for final gyro assembly. That meant going back indoors and doing the second fry to give the french fries their crispy exterior. I actually under fried them from what I normally do a bit because the fries in gyros are not crackling crisp like most fast-food style fries.
Next I heated up the pitas so they would be soft and pliable. Since the fire on the grill was still going, I utilized it to make quick work of this and also allow me to heat multiple pitas at once.
Then I sliced into the meat and was greeted with something that certainly looked like it could have come off of a spit. A taste of this pork let me know that the seasoning delivered a flavor that was pretty spot on, and cooking the meat in the loaf pan in its own fat left it extra porky. It wasn't quite as juicy as I was hoping for, but overall I was impressed that I got something that tasted so good on a first attempt.
To make the final sandwiches, I took a warm pita and lined it with a layer of pork that I topped with tzatziki, thinly sliced red onions, tomatoes, fries, and sprinkling of parsley. I then rolled it closed and secured it in its conical shaped using aluminum foil.
I was filled with so much joy upon just the first bite of these. The mixture of flavors brought me right back to gyros I ate so often while living in Asotria, even if the meat didn't reach the porcine divinity level of BZ Grill—it's hard to match someone at the top of their craft. Overall though, every note I wanted in a gyro was accounted—soft and chewy pita, hearty pork, sharp and crunchy red onion, juicy tomatoes, cooling tzatziki, and those all too important fries. They certainly filled a gap while I'm unable to travel to New York right now, which makes getting through this pandemic just a smidge easier for me.
- Yield 8 servings
- Prep 30 Minutes
- Cook 2 Hours
- Total 2 Hours 30 Minutes
- For the Tzatziki
- 2 cups Greek yogurt
- 1 English cucumber, peeled and grated
- 2 tablespoons fresh lemon juice from 1 lemon
- 1 tablespoon minced garlic (about 3 medium cloves)
- 2 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil
- 1 1/2 teaspoons finely minced fresh dill
- Kosher salt
- For the Fries
- 2 large russet potatoes, scrubbed and cut into cut into 1/4-inch sticks on a mandoline
- 1 quart peanut or canola oil
- Kosher salt
- For the Pork
- 1 tablespoon kosher salt
- 1 tablespoon dried Greek oregano
- 2 teaspoons paprika
- 2 teaspoons freshly ground black pepper
- 3lbs pork shoulder, thinly sliced
- 1/4 cup red wine vinegar
- For the Pita Sandwiches
- 8 Greek-style pocketless pitas
- 4 plum tomatoes, sliced crosswise 1/4 inch thick
- 1 large red onion, thinly sliced
- 1 small head red leaf lettuce, rinsed and dried
- 3 tablespoons finely chopped fresh parsley
- To make the Tzatziki: Mix together yogurt, cucumber, lemon juice, garlic, olive oil, and dill in a medium bowl. Season with salt. Transfer to an airtight container and refrigerate for at least 1 hour before using.
- To make the fries: Heat oil in a large Dutch oven or wok to 350°F. Working in batches, add potatoes and cook, stirring and turning frequently until pale blonde, about 5 minutes. Transfer potatoes to a paper towel-lined baking sheet. Set aside.
- To make the pork: In a small bowl, combine together salt, oregano, paprika, and black pepper. Season pork slices all over with seasoning mixture. Layer pork slices into a small loaf pan, drizzling a little vinegar between each layer and you go.
- Light a chimney 3/4 full of charcoal. When all the charcoal is lit and covered with gray ash, pour out and arrange the coals on one side of the charcoal grate. Set cooking grate in place, cover grill and allow to preheat for 5 minutes. Clean and oil the grilling grate. Place loaf pan with pork on cool side of grill, cover, and cook until center of meat registers between 196-203°F on an instant read thermometer, about 1 1/2 to 2 hours, replenishing coals as needed to maintain a medium heat in the grill. Remove pork from loaf pan and place on hot side of grill. Sear pork on all sides until well browned, about 2 minutes per side. Transfer pork to a cutting pork.
- Heat oil to 425°F. Add potatoes and cook, stirring and turning frequently, until light golden brown, about 2 minutes. Transfer to paper towel-lined baking sheet and season with salt to taste.
- To make the pita sandwiches: Working in batches as necessary, place pita on hot side of grill and cook until warm and pliable, about 30 seconds per side. Cut pork into 1/2-slices. Place a serving of pork slices along the center of each pita and top with tomatoes, red onion slices, french fries, and tzatziki. Garnish with parsley then fold close and wrap the sandwich in foil to secure together. Serve immediately.