Greek Express has many hits - and a few misses.
Behold the glorious gyro, the pita sandwich that is to Greek cuisine what General Tso's is to Chinese food.
It doesn't matter much to the dining public that both originated in the U.S. - or at least are believed to have done so.
Like a burger or slice of pizza, the gyro is one of those utility meals that's routinely satisfying and hard to screw up. A few slices of the spit-roasted meat, lettuce, tomato, onion (we prefer to hold the onion) and some sauce inside a folded pita.
But when it comes to gyros, some are much better than others.
Greek Express, Ferdinand Cela's latest quick-serve joint, makes a respectable gyro. That's because, Cela says, the restaurant uses top-shelf gyro meat, a blend of seasoned beef or lamb. True, it seems to be milder and less salty than other versions, and the narrow slivers aren't dry and splintered. The toppings are basic, but we had one chief complaint: You have to ask for tzatziki or you'll get the sour garlic mayo. That is not the restaurant's fault, obviously, as many people prefer the latter over the yogurt sauce. Yet, no gyro is complete without tzatziki, a cool contrast to the gyro's more assertive, salty profile.
There are endless combo possibilities, ranging from $4.89 to $6.59. A 6-ounce gyro ($3.79) will satisfy most appetites, especially when paired with a drink and side.
Cela now has a quartet of successful Greek eateries that appeal to the palate and the budget. Let's make a distinction between what his restaurants are - and aren't. They are quick-serve, not fast-food, despite what otherwise is indicated by the drive-through window. You will use plastic utensils to eat out of Styrofoam containers. It's the price you pay to eat inexpensively and quickly. Look on the bright side: It makes carryout that much easier.
Kebabs, beef or chicken ($7.99 each), are flattop-grilled to order, served with rice, which tends to be overcooked, and one other side. Go with the Greek salad, which uses a flourish of crisp greenery, quality Kalamatas, banana peppers and feta. Ask for the tart vinaigrette dressing instead of the loathsome garlic mayo, which doesn't belong anywhere near a salad, let alone on it.
The place is having fun with lemon. A widely haled Greek favorite, the spanikopita ($2.09) uses crispy layers of phyllo holding an earthy center of spinach and feta seasoned with a slight amount of lemon. Very good hummus ($3.49) also is kissed with citrus, but pass on the watery chicken lemon soup ($2.39). A sprightly lemon sauce tops the dolmathes ($3.99 for four, $5.49 for six) - seasoned ground meat studded with rice and tightly wrapped in grape leaves.
As for the restaurant's venture into Chi-Town products, well, perhaps that's better left to the experts. An all-beef dog ($1.89) is adequate, garnished with relish, pickles, onions and tomatoes, but the poppyseed bun seems microwaved, not steamed, and develops a tedious chewy texture. Same deal with the Polish sausage ($2.89) with caramelized onions.
We departed on a somewhat sweet note, the cinnamon-dashed rice pudding ($1.50), a little too thick but pleasant enough. It says a lot about Greek Express - some things really work, and some things really need work.
Reservations: Not accepted
Hours: 10:30 a.m. to 9:30 p.m. Monday through Saturday and 11 a.m. to 8 p.m. Sunday