Some of the funniest “Saturday Night Live” sketches have been about food and restaurants. From the classic early ‘90s cast, one of the best was a scene based on Hub’s Gyros of Chicago. A customer requests more of the juice, or “au jus,” that goes with his sandwich, and staff with thick accents find endless occasions to say “You lika da juice” back to him. Of course, the whole thing went on too long, and in a bit of self-referential contrivance, David Spade had to come on stage to request that the sketch come to an end.
Sami’s Gyros at Priest and Washington, located just across the street from the light rail station at that intersection, doesn’t have the tradition of Hub’s or the silliness of an SNL sketch, but it’s a solid choice for lunch or early dinner in this office district just on the Tempe side of that city’s border with Phoenix. Find Sami’s in a little retail plaza on the northeast corner. On the walk from the train, there are surprising touches like a pedestrian path from the street and a gazebo with a memorial to the developer of the Papago Park Center, the surrounding cluster of office buildings.
|gyros with rice|
This is clean, modern fast food place. It’s every bit as casual as a veteran Chicago gyros place, but without the decades-old patina that most customers either love or hate. Take away a few decorations on the wall, the Greek music on the speakers, and the vertical rotisseries for the gyros, and any type of food could be served here. That’s not really an issue because most clientele come from nearby corporate environments and are more interested in quick, hearty, moderately-priced meals than distinctive atmosphere or deep Mediterranean authenticity.
The rotisseries produce the restaurant’s namesake dish — either stuffed in sandwiches with pita bread or presented as part of a platter with rice. The gyros cones used by Sami’s produce tender meat, although it can be on the dry side. You could try to re-create the SNL sketch by asking for some “juice,” but the accompanying tzatziki, generously seasoned with dill, moistens the gyros nicely. The gyros sandwich is available in a combination special with fairly standard fries, although anyone wanting a lighter and tastier side might want to upgrade to fluffy yellow rice for a dollar extra.
|Mediterranean chicken sandwich with fries|
Some of the best items may just be elsewhere on the menu, though. While gyros cones are often prepared in advance by national producers, the Mediterranean chicken at Sami’s is grilled over an open flame in plain view right behind the counter. The white meat turns out plump, juicy, and flavorful. Like the gyros, it’s available tucked inside a pita with fries on the side or paired with fluffy golden rice on a platter. Falafel is the vegetarian protein source at Sami’s, and the version here has a nice, crisp exterior, with a bit of spiciness and saltiness lurking inside.
|falafel sandwich with rice|
The falafel comes in a sandwich generously stuffed with four balls, but the sandwich seems dry because the tahini is thick and served on the side, making it difficult to moisten the falafel evenly. One remedy is to buy a side of tzatziki, which has a thinner consistency, and pour that over the sandwich. The falafel is also featured in a vegetarian platter with creamy, airy hummus; plump meatless dolmas; rice, tzatziki, and a pita. There’s even a side salad included, but it relies heavily on iceberg lettuce and seems superfluous next to the already-generous combination.
If gyros, falafel, and tzatsiki represent the Greek side of Sami’s, remember that the restaurant is as much about Chicago as Athens. To that end, there’s a section of Chicago favorites on the menu. The most distinctive item from there is an Italian beef sandwich, with thinly sliced meat and peppers on a roll. Sides of au jus for dipping and giardiniera as a garnish add flavor, although the sandwich is not as messy and wet as the classic version. For customers in business attire who need to return to the office, that may not be an entirely bad thing.
|Italian beef with fries|
Sami’s does not serve alcohol, so drink choices are found in the soda fountain and a case full of bottled drinks near the front counter. A few basic fruit juices might be a nice enhancement here. For desert, there are some individually-wrapped cookies and brownies also near the counter, but the sweet to order is without doubt the baklava. It’s a standard triangular piece filling enough for two to share and possessing the right combination of buttery softness, indulgent sweetness, and nutty crunch.
For the most part, Sami’s focuses on a weekday lunch crowd. Saturday hours with $5 sandwiches are advertised, but on a recent visit the restaurant was closed without explanation on that day. Sami’s is open reliably on weekdays, but call head before making a weekend trip there. On “Saturday Night Live,” the original Hub’s Gyros sketch inspired a follow-up a few weeks later in which the restaurant staff travel to Mount Olympus in search of “more juice.” If your travels take you near Priest and Washington, a few follow-up visits to Sami’s might be a good idea.
1158 W. Washington St., Tempe AZ 85281
Priest / Washington Station