All-night Souvlaki Shops in Heraklion
By Yannis Samatas souvlaki shops in Heraklion town centre never close, feeding locals and tourists 24/7, 365 days a year. The same is true of other cities in Crete and Greece, as fast food has become a basic necessity and souvlaki shops stay open all night, along with chemists’ and service stations.
So who’s going to be hungry at 3, 4 or 5 in the morning? Any one of us who happens to be awake at that hour. Usually after a night out with lots of alcohol and loud music, the party ends up in the Lion Square for a pita gyros to fill that empty stomach. This is not a recent phenomenon; “xenihtadika” all-night tavernas have been around for years, catering to night owls wanting a soup to settle their stomachs after an evening’s hard drinking. In the rest of Greece these are called “patsatzidika” after their main dish: patsas, a fatty pork-belly soup (yum!) These tavernas are still around, but souvlaki shops are now more popular.
We visited a Heraklion souvlaki shop to learn a few of the trade secrets. Christos and Tassos Alexakis are two young businessmen who opened their first souvlaki shop about 18 years ago. Today they are the owners of three souvlaki shops around Heraklion:
- on 62 Martyron Avenue, their first business
- in the Lion Square in the town centre, where the most souvlaki shops are clustered
- on Papandreou Avenue, the most recent shop
The Alexakis brothers were the first to serve huge portions and this set them apart from the competition.
For a mere €2.50 (price in 2006) you can buy a pita gyros or pita souvlaki that you need both hands to hold and which is guaranteed to fill you up for several hours. These bear no relationship to the scanty souvlakia and gyros of Athens, where it takes three or four to fill you up and they cost more.
The two brothers love their work, are constantly expanding their business, keep their shops clean and neat, provide the best service to their customers and are proud of the patent they have been awarded for the gyros machine invented by Christos.
Their three shops employ 30 staff and sell about 1000 pitas with gyros and souvlaki a day. Their menu includes a lot of meat dishes – it’s carnivore paradise and vegetarian hell. But that’s not a problem – if you’re a vegetarian and find yourself in the Lion Sqaure, go two doors down and buy a spinach or cheese pie or a crepe.
Meat-eaters who want to try a different flavour should order a “psomaki me souvlaki” or a “psomaki me gyro” (small loaf with souvlaki or gyros), a combination first offered in Heraklion by Thraka souvlaki shop: a small grilled loaf with the bready centre removed, filled with meat, tomato, onion, yoghourt and chips. A pita souvlaki in fact, but with bread instead of pita.
We asked Tassos and Christos what makes a good gyros or good souvlaki. They both agree that the meat must be fresh and correctly marinated with Cretan oregano and other herbs (to a secret recipe) and eaten quickly. If gyros is not eaten at once and stays turning on the spit too long, it loses its flavour. The same goes for pita bread if it’s grilled too soon and has gone cold waiting for a customer to turn up.
So next time you’re hungry in Heraklion, you know where to go to fill your empty stomach, even late at night or early in the morning, because there’s always something open for hungry Herakliots…