Downtown Minneapolis Greek Showdown
Who has the best gyro in the skyways? We were posed that simple question, which led us to a few more: How much Greek is there in downtown Minneapolis? What constitutes a good gyro? Does anyone actually eat those whole pepperoncini that always come with Greek salads?
We found four contenders to face off for top honors. For ease of comparison, we tried to order some combination of gyro meat, pita, Greek salad, hummus, and tzatziki. We noticed that good gyro meat was related to thickness. We also found that the quality of feta will tell you if your Greek salad is up to par. Among the four, we found two to be average, one not really applicable, and one clear standout.
The skyway system dead-ends in the Lumber Exchange Building. That’s why one of our downtown confidants has nicknamed Trieste Cafe “Secret Greek.” It’s accessible but not convenient. No one will find it on the way to anything else. It occupies a skinny swath of the building on the ground level facing 5th Street – just some plain tables in a bright orange hallway opposite the entrance to Pourhouse.
But when we showed up at noon, we quickly realized this place is no secret. In fact, it has some fervent devotees. Standing in line, which thankfully moved at a good pace, we were encouraged to see whole vegetables on a cutting board (no refrigerator-burned tomatoes here).
Using our trusty method of ordering lemonade to see if a restaurant can do the basics correctly, we found Trieste off to a flying start. Their fresh-squeezed stuff is wonderful ($3 / 20 oz.).
All of our target Greek staples were found on one plate at Trieste. The gyro variety plate ($9, above left) is massive and could be shared easily. The meat itself is thicker cut than average and is tender as can be. It’s perhaps a bit under spiced (and thus topped with an unnecessary shake of dried seasonings), but no complaints when the base flavor of the meat is so good.
Beyond the veggies cut to order, what really endeared us to the salad was a generous smattering of moist, creamy feta. This would prove exemplary later in our comparisons. As for the hummus and tzatziki, they had great consistencies though rather mild flavors. They’re both fine accompaniments on what is one of the more quality gyro plates we’ve recently encountered.
Trieste Cafe, 10 S 5th St, Minneapolis; 612.333.4658
Good To Go
Overlooking the lobby of the US Bank plaza is Good To Go – a “Mediterranean Deli” from the owners of Atlas Grill that’s built for speed. It’s perhaps not entirely fair to include them in a Greek showdown, as they feature kebab wraps and sandwiches untied to any one ethnic style.
We were able to approximate a comparison by way of their Greek salad ($5) with an add-on lamb kebab ($3). The kebab meat had a severely compressed texture and a distinct meatball-like taste about it. The salad itself was just fine and $5 gets you a lot of it. We’d suggest going meatless if you get one.
So if you’re craving traditional Greek, Good To Go isn’t your best choice. Better to stop in for their wraps ($6.25). The long stick of kabab meat is much more agreeable to the tortilla treatment. The lamb wrap came packed with rice, pinto beans, cilantro, and tomato.
One disconcerting note: Good To Go features individually tossed salads, though we noticed on both our trips that they were somewhat indiscriminate about using a new mixing bowl for each order. We didn’t have to address it personally, but it might be prudent for anyone with allergies or other food sensitivities to keep a watchful eye.
Good To Go, 200 S 6th St, Minneapolis; 612.341.4600
Greek Grill & Cafe
Greek Grill & Cafe is tucked away in one of the less trafficked halls of the City Center commons. Dated murals of Greek seascapes flank the dining area and, if you think you’ve seen the same ones in dozens of other Greek places, your deja vu will extend to the food.
They turn out gyros in an exceedingly average fashion. Even if you haven’t eaten there before, you pretty much already have. That’s not to say it’s bad — we’d eat there again tomorrow. It’s a carbon copy of the gyro at, say, Joe’s Market & Deli on Como, or before it closed, Spiro’s Mediterranean Market on University. In essence: It’s like every gyro you’ve ever had.
The salad itself was pretty unremarkable: a bed of romaine with tomatoes, some stiff red cabbage, and green pepper. It comes with a small cup of herb dressing, and an unfortunate sprinkling of weak, powdery feta. Our vote is to skip it and just stick to the gyro ($4.50).
The gyro meat is spicer than Trieste, though it’s thinner and consequently drier. It was comparing the two in detail that also reminded us that most gyro meat has a pretty messed up texture to begin with, and it’s best not to think about in detail.
We ponied up $3.50 for a side order of hummus, which is somewhat dear when considering the anemic daub it gets you. It’s pleasantly creamy and comes with an extra pita half. It’s standard Greek, like you know and (maybe) love.
Greek Grill & Cafe, 40 S 7th St, Minneapolis; 612.305.9163
If you don’t work in the Oracle International Center, you may have never heard of Valentino Cafe. And thanks to no signage out front, even walking by the building is no guarantee you’ll know about it. It’s just a small enclave to the left side of the lobby as you enter off 9th Street.
Their offerings are all over the place -– tacos, burritos, salads, and gyros. We asked the regulars about their favorites and failed to get a consensus. But we did hear some complimentary things about the beautiful rotisserie chickens that spin away in a pair of Showtime ovens next to the gyro spits.
The standard gyro meat is serviceable but not terrific. It was the thinnest and driest meat of all the restaurants in our comparison. The gyro plate ($5) gets you about 4 ounces of meat with tomato, pita, and a huge glob of very agreeable hummus.
You’d be better off with their gyro-style chicken. The Greek salad with either meat ($6) is a huge undertaking. The chicken is still on the dry side, but less so. The salad has both romaine and spinach, better-than-average dressing, and chunky, delicious feta.
You should skip the make-your-own salad option at Valentino. Even $2.50 seems a lot for a small bowl of very average-tasting salad bar standards. Actually, stop by for one of their non-Greek lunches. Any Valentino fans out there know which they do best?
Valentino Cafe, 900 2nd Ave S, Minneapolis; 612.338.7434
A quick baklava taste-off
Trieste Cafe (left) vs. Greek Grill & Cafe (right). Both pieces are $2 and we wouldn’t be surprised if they were made by the same hands. Impossibly identical in texture and flavor, we give the slightest of nods to Greek Grill for a filling a little less dry than Trieste.
Among these competitors (and please let us know if we’ve missed any that you’re partial to), let’s declare Trieste Cafe the winner for now. Get there before or after the rush if possible, get the combo plate, and don’t forget the lemonade.