Sunday, June 19, 2011

What Do the Coneheads...

and male college students have in common? They both like "to consume mass quantities"—especially if they come cheap and fast.

In this blog, we explore two “international” quasi-fast food places, starting with Sparti’s Gryos. We haven’t had what we consider to be a good gyro since leaving Pennsylvania, so after discovering that Sparti’s got four and a half stars on urban, we decided to make this one of our Iowa City stops.

Sparti’s Gyros started in 2007, with its original location in Kenosha, WI. A second location opened a year and a half later in Coralville, Iowa. Its newest location in Racine, Wisconsin opened in July, 2010. And all three of these are college/university towns. Sparti’s food has been described as Chicago-Greek, especially because of the soft and fluffy pita which comes with most orders.

This is another place-your-order-at-the-counter-and-find-a-seat places. After careful study of the overhead menu, Chuck finally settled on an order of hummus and the Gyro Plate (below), which is described as “Mounds and mounds of our delicious gyro meat, served open face with our handmade pita bread, ripe tomato, fresh cut onion, and our world renowned homemade tzatziki sauce all on the side, served with fries. So big an Iowa football player will be asking for a doggie bag!”

My choice was the Gyro/Chicken Souvlaki Combo Plate served with tomato, onion, tzatziki sauce, and handmade pita. Instead of fries, I ordered the Greek potatoes. (The other option was rice.)

We took a seat under the watchful eye of Iowa head football coach, Kirk Ferentz. We panic every year at the end of the NFL season. As pro head coaches are getting fired, Ferentz’s name is always mentioned as a replacement. Lucky for us Hawkeye fans, he has resisted the lure of big bucks. We hope that lasts. (By the way: “The term ‘Hawkeye’ originally appeared in the book The Last of the Mohicans and was later used in its plural form to describe the people of Iowa. The University of Iowa adopted this as the nickname for its athletic teams.”)

I had been told that my chicken souvlaki would take ten or so minutes, but I was willing to wait for what I hoped would be freshly cooked food. I was not disappointed. My plate contained a heaping portion of good garlicky gyro meat and a large skewer of moist and juicy chicken pieces that had been marinated with olive oil and oregano. I do think that adding a modest amount of lemon juice to the chicken marinade would have been a plus. The potato wedges had been tossed with the same olive oil and oregano mix, and here the lack of lemon was appreciated. I was particularly impressed by the high quality of olive oil used at Sparti’s. Some from the potatoes had pooled on the plate and made a delicious salad dressing for the lettuce, tomatoes, and onions. By the way, the tzatziki sauce lacked any cucumber flavor and was overly thick.

If the tzatziki needed cucumber, the hummus needed garlic. While not as bland as the hummus at Revelations in Fairfield, IA, this needed something to give it life. But the soft pitas that came with the hummus and both of our dinners were nice and chewy.

Chuck’s gyro plate (left) did indeed contain mounds of meat along with fairly decent French fries.

Sparti’s also serves some of the Chicago sandwich classics, like the Chicago Style Hot Dog (served on a poppy seed bun with mustard, chopped onions, neon green relish, tomato, crisp pickle spear, spicy sport pepper and a splash of celery salt) and the Big Italian Beef on a long roll with giardinerra. So we returned a few days later and ordered one of each.

How were they? We should have stuck to the gyros.

I would give our first lunch at Sparti’s a solid 4.0 Addie rating. The follow-up lunch? No more than 2.5 Addies.

Next up, Mexican. “When he and his father were looking for places to open a new taqueria restaurant in the Midwest in the early 1990s, Rodney Anderson said he grew to like a corner store that was available at Clinton and Washington streets in downtown Iowa City.‘We were looking at Iowa City because we thought it was a great downtown,’ said Anderson,... founder and president of Panchero’s Mexican Grill.‘It was the location.’ That location, along with East Lansing, Mich., turned out to be the sites of the first Panchero’s taco and burrito restaurants in 1992. It is a concept that has developed into one featuring large burritos made with fresh-pressed tortillas and other ingredients at more than 50 locations in the United States” (

There are three Panchero’s in Iowa City area and the one that we visited was along the Coralville “strip.” The space is surprisingly attractive for what is basically a fast food operation with the walls hung with metal pieces

and colorful prints.

And the menu is simple. You can have a burrito, a burrito bowl, a quesadilla, tacos, or salad. For fillings, you can have steak, chicken, pork carnitas, or veggies. Some items come with black or pinto beans. Some items come with rice. What you won’t find are hard shells or ground beef. In fact, the employees wear t-shirts which proclaim “No Hard Shells-No Ground Beef-No Apologies.”

So you go to the counter and place your order. At this point, one of the staff places a small ball of dough on a contraption that whirs and spins and spits out the thinnest flour tortilla ever like a Frisbee onto the adjoining flattop. As your tortillas are cooking—and being so thin this only takes a few minutes—

you tell another staff person what you want on your taco, burrito, quesadilla, or salad.

Chuck’s choice that day was two steak tacos with cheese, corn, pico de gallo, and hot salsa along with an order of blue corn chips and more hot salsa.

My choice was the steak burrito with rice, black beans, cheese, and pico de gallo with a small side of excellent guacamole.

I have one complaint about burritos. Even with a tortilla this thin, each end where the shell is folded and tucked becomes a heavy doughy mass. The ends always go uneaten—but only after I have scraped any filling from the folds.

This was a good lunch and certainly better than most fast food offerings and deserves a 3.5 Addie rating.

(Another historical note: “Back in the day” the business occupying Rodney Anderson’s original location would cash college students’ checks for a dime. How times have changed.)