Feeling falafel

Sultan’s Bistro takes reviewer back to summer in Athens

NOT SO CROTCHETY <br>Bryan Cannon prepares an authentic dish at Sultan’s Bistro inside the Phoenix Building.

Bryan Cannon prepares an authentic dish at Sultan’s Bistro inside the Phoenix Building.

Photo By Alexis Harmon

Sultan’s Bistro 300 Broadway (Inside the Phoenix Building) Open Mon.-Fri., 11 a.m. to 9 p.m., and Sun., 11 a.m. to 7 p.m.

Wandering along a narrow cobblestone street in Athens last summer, I came across a hole-in-the-wall gyro (yee-ro) stand complete with a crotchety old Greek man. I’d seen plenty of restaurants and fast-food counters, but this was the smallest walk-up window I’d found.

As far as I’m concerned, dirty, hole-in-the-wall joints always seem to have the best food, so you can imagine my excitement. The old Greek guy seemed a little perturbed by the disruption, but he carved up some of the mystery meat he had spinning on the rotisserie and deftly rolled up my portable treat.

Turns out in this case I was right. That gyro changed my life. OK, well, that might be a bit dramatic, but that tasty gyro is seared more deeply into my memory than most of things we saw and did in Greece.

Lucky for me, I can come pretty close to reliving that gyro at Sultan’s Bistro in the Phoenix Building downtown.

Sultan’s tiny open kitchen surrounded by a solid wood bar gives it that gyro-stand feel—it even has the rotating meat (technically called shwarma). But no mystery here; it’s beef and lamb. The grouchy old man is replaced with friendly college kids and everything complies with health codes. The semi-tacky décor even gives it that authentic feel.

The Sultan’s gyros, though, are more complicated than the ones in Greece. So be prepared for the following choices: Athens (pita, a thick tortilla-like flat bread—$5.50) or Istanbul (sandwich—$7.50) style. With the pita, there’s the choice of white or wheat. And fillings? You have chicken, beef/lamb or falafel. Tough call, since all are good, but I prefer the falafel.

Falafels are vegetarian, a spiced ground chickpea-base rolled to the size of golf balls and deep fried to a toasty, crispy brown. They are exotic, without being too strange, and the deep-fried crunch is universally satisfying.

Gyros are the Mediterranean answer to the taco. Here they contain your chosen filling: hummus, cabbage, cucumbers, tomatoes, onions, lettuce and tzatziki, a tangy yogurt sauce. Add the hot red pepper sauce for the perfect kick. You can pick it up and eat it with your hands, but with all of those ingredients bursting out the top it’s advisable to keep a fork nearby.

One gyro is a huge meal, but an order of chunky, fresh-cut home fries ($2.15) makes a great appetizer while you wait. Sultan’s fries have generally been a crispy, golden treat, but the last time I was in, a different batch of potatoes left the fries misleadingly dark and kind of soggy. They’ll have their regular supply back soon, but in the meantime these homemade fries are still worth more than their price tag.

If you are new to the whole concept of Greek and Turkish food or want something a little bit different, check out Sultan’s variety of platters. The first time I tried the beef/lamb gyro platter ($9.60) I was blown away by the succulent, flavorful slices of meat. That meat combo must have been what I was served in Athens. The platters come with a bed of rice, a salad and a side of good, but slightly greasy, pita wedges.

If you can’t settle on just one dish, try the Mediterranean platter for a taste tour of the region. I can’t stand dolmas—two come with the platter—but the portion of falafels, rice, pita, hummus, baba ganouj (smoky eggplant puree) and great tabouli salad more than compensated.

The spicy ground sirloin kubideh platter ($9.92) is also worth a try, but it takes almost twice as long as most other items. If you have less adventurous eaters in your midst, Sultan’s offers hamburgers ($5.62 with fries), Greek salads (small $5.25) and children’s combo plates ($3.95) as alternatives.

If you have any room left after dinner, try the the baklava ($1.50), with its flaky, crisp layers of philo dough on top of sticky, honey-covered walnut chunks.

But for me, gyros remain the highlight. Any time Chico winter days seem a bit too dull for a world-traveler, I keep in mind that a visit to this downtown gyro-stand can instantly whisk me away to that summer day in Athens.