There are some doors that just draw us through them — counters that pull us to them with a magnetism you feel in the pit of you.
You’re one of us, they seem to say. You belong here. Smiles at the ready, your name on the tips of their tongues and your order quick out of its holster and into the kitchen because they don’t want you to have to wait. They want you fed. They want to hear about your day. You go back to places like that. You never forget them.
Which is why, when I mentioned to a good friend of mine I was writing a food column, the words “Gyros House” shot out of his mouth trailing smoke.
I said, “What?”
And he said,”You’ve gotta eat at Gyros House.”
I hit him with the obligatory “Why?” and he laid it out for me.
About five years ago, this friend was working a loss prevention gig at the Federal Way Commons. For those of you who are unfamiliar with that job title and what it entails, according to every store chains’ Official Policies and Guidelines, “loss prevention agents are responsible for the recovery of stolen merchandise by means of clandestine surveillance and customer service techniques.”
Having done the job in several states, I can say that it actually entails wandering through a store in plainclothes talking about what you’re going to have for lunch and how you’re going to pay your rent this month. It entails watching people cram things they don’t intend on paying for into places they shouldn’t be cramming them. A good deal of the time, it also entails apocalyptic fistfights on hot asphalt to the meat-packing slap of punches and the monotonous repetition of the phrase “stop resisting” and “come on dude, quit being an A-hole.”
It’s dangerous, thankless, hungry work, and agents are always on the prowl for cheap eats, which is exactly how my buddy stumbled upon Gyros House, plopped in The Commons food court, in the middle of a sky-lit alley between a Baskin-Robbins and some bathrooms.
He and his partner would wander to the counter, scuffed up and disheveled, and Saif, the owner, would give them a knowing smile and start cranking out the good stuff.
“Saif was awesome,” my buddy said. “He would always remember us, and he’d make us this special gyro when we came in.” He started to try to describe it, but the words failed him and he made a face that clinched it for me. I had to eat at Gyros House.
Saif Shihab was shaving beef off a spit when I came to him. Dropping it onto the cooktop with a hiss and spatter, tossing it about artfully. Shihab was facing the grill, talking to the kid ordering, voice booming out of his big frame, echoing down the hall. They were so friendly with one another that I thought they must be old pals, but as I stood there listening it dawned on me that he’s just like that with everyone. Friendly. Familiar.
The warmth with which Shihab and his brother, Zaid, meet every new customer is all the more unbelievable when you know the things they had to overcome to be where they are. Shihab and Zaid immigrated to the U.S. from Iraq, where they’d been serving in the Iraqi army and helping the U.S. troops in their surge through the country. They came to America on a visa and were sent to Washington because of their close work with a unit from Fort Lewis. They think.
“How’d you end up doing this?” I asked Shihab.
“I was new in the country and I really needed a job.” He throws the answer over his shoulder, ever busy on the grill. “I was walking through this mall, trying to find work, and I heard music that I knew.”
He followed the sounds to this kiosk, where he found a Lebanese man making gyros, a very close cousin of shawarma, a popular Middle Eastern dish.
“I said to him, ‘Hire me for one month. If you like me, keep me; if you don’t, let me go.’”
Shihab worked as a cook for a while and then moved up to managing the place when the owner was away in Lebanon. Finally, when the owner got ready to move to a bigger location, Shihab offered to buy the kiosk from him. He’s been there ever since, turning out the kind of goodness that can make you forget about putting a half naked guy in an arm-bar over some stolen satin panties.
That brings me, at last, to the food. At my friend’s urging, I ordered the special, which doesn’t have a name. Meat off the spit onto the grill, tossed with tomatoes and onion, all sizzled until soft. Then the fries, cut fresh every morning, still hissing from the oil. Shihab folds them up in the meats and veggies, sets them down in the lettuce and the tzatziki sauce, drizzles it all with soft, tangy cheese, and rolls it up on a warm dream of a pita.
It’s heavenly. Everything I could possibly want in a lunch. So good, in fact, that I went back the next day to have the same meal again, and this time, the friend who introduced me to the place came with.
On the walk through the mall to Gyros House, I asked him how long it had been since he’d been there. He shook his head.
“Man, like, five years.”
“You excited to see Saif?”
He laughed. “Yeah, but he’s not going to remember me.”
As we got to the counter, though, that friendly smile stretched across Shihab’s face.
“My friend!” He said, “It’s been a long time! Do you want your special?” And he was already turning to make it, spatulas singing on the grilltop, fries rolling in the oil.
Some places just draw you to them. You’re one of us, they seem to say. You go back to places like that, even five years later, because you never forget about them.
Sometimes, if it’s a place like that, they don’t forget you either.
Kellen Burden is a local novelist and lunch enthusiast. More of his work can be found at www.goatfederation.com.