A couple of years back – what feels like a lifetime ago, in fact – I found myself in Guildford at lunchtime on a summer’s day. I’d taken the train there, back when you could safely do that, for a mooch around and a spot of shopping (back when you could safely do that, too) and my thoughts turned to lunch, as they generally do pretty much any time from half-eleven onwards. I knew a place that did the most incredible bacon sandwich – toasted sourdough bread, plenty of just-right rashers of smoked streaky, Stokes brown sauce on top – but having marched to the top of High Street, I found it had closed down. What to do?
Salvation came in the form of a little souvlaki joint tucked away on a sidestreet near the castle, just down from a fantastic cheesemonger. The sun was out, and there was one table left outside: it was just too perfect. So we nabbed it, and fifteen minutes later I was eating a gyros wrap stuffed with meat and chips, accompanied with a glass of Cypriot beer for no other reason than just because. There was something about it – something about eating outside when it’s warm, something about the golden colour of lager caught in a ray of sunlight, that makes you feel like you’re on holiday even when you’re not. I’ve missed many things over the last twelve months, and one of them is lunches like that.
I have a long-standing love of gyros, of Greek food and of Greece in general, born of numerous holidays there over the years. When I was thirteen my parents took me to Corfu, the first time I’d ever been abroad, ever been on a plane, and I credit that holiday with kickstarting my insatiable curiosity about food. I ate stifado – rich stew with beef that fell apart, soft baby onions and the faintest hint of cinnamon – until it came out of my ears and enjoyed the lemonade, so exotic and so different from the clear, tasteless stuff back home.
The last time I went to Greece it was to Parga, a beautiful harbour town on the mainland not quite so well-known to British tourists. I remember sitting outside a little gyros shop at the bottom of the main street, having a long lazy lunch, drinking another beer and feeling like nothing could be that wrong with the world. Even seeing the frozen pillars of meat being unloaded from a van just outside could put me off my meal: it was sheer bliss.
It’s hard to believe that was over seven years ago, but Covid robbed me of a holiday last June in Rhodes. I had such wonderful plans (if you can use the word “plan” when you aim to do as little as possible) of sitting by the pool reading trashy novels and drinking beer and rosé, taking a taxi down to Lindos in the evenings to eat at restaurants and drink in bars. There’s one restaurant in the square called Mavrikos that does the most beautiful fish and seafood, and there are places that sell ambrosial frozen yoghurt, but I could guarantee that gyros would feature in that holiday too.
Back in January 2021, in the real world, Tasty Greek Souvlaki was an obvious choice for my first takeaway review of the year. It was one of the first openings after lockdown began, so one of the first new restaurants I hadn’t yet had the chance to review. It had opened on Market Place, where MumMum used to be – and heaven knows, 2020 was a difficult enough time to open a restaurant as it is without the additional handicap of being right next to Blue Collar and facing intense competition two lunchtimes a week.
Nevertheless, most of the reports I’d heard had been very good: my other half had a gyros wrap from there over the summer when they did some catering for her work and had raved about it for weeks. I’d even been on the verge of reviewing their lunchtime offering, on one of the last days when it was warm enough to sit outside, just before our second lockdown was announced. So when Friday night came around and I fired up my phone to decide what to order, Tasty Greek Souvlaki was uppermost in my mind. Could it transport me back to Greece, if only for a few happy moments?
Tasty Greek Souvlaki gives you the option of ordering for collection by phone, but if you want delivery you have the choice of the big three: Deliveroo, JustEat or Uber Eats. I opted for Uber Eats on this occasion, partly because my last two experiences with Deliveroo had been truly awful and I wanted to give Tasty Greek Souvlaki the best possible chance, and partly because I had an introductory credit with Uber Eats burning a virtual hole in my virtual pocket.
The menu gives you a wide range of options at various price points, from wraps to merida (meat on a plate with salad and chips), club sandwiches and mixed grills. You can even lob in a few additional skewers, if you’re feeling particularly hungry, and there are a handful of sides. This was well suited to takeaway food, because there weren’t really any starters: doing starters and mains by delivery always means you either have to keep something warm in the oven, eat something that has gone cold or hoover food so fast you need to mainline Gaviscon.
I wanted to try a bit of everything, and the menu had the perfect thing for me – the mixed grill for two, which includes a lamb, pork and chicken skewer, a “greek kebab”, some sausage, some pork belly and mixed gyros, along with chips, pita, salad and dips. You get all that for the princely sum of twenty-five pounds ninety-five, and although I found it hard to imagine wanting more food than that I added some halloumi to the order, more out of curiosity than anything else.
Along with the service charge, and not including the rider tip, this came to just shy of thirty-five pounds: my delivery fee was low because I live a short drive from the restaurant, so your mileage may (literally) vary.
A nice touch which distinguishes Uber Eats from Deliveroo is that you pick the amount to tip the driver but that is provisionally added to the total and you reconfirm it at the end. I really liked that. I strongly believe that people should tip delivery drivers well, especially in a pandemic when they are doing work many of us wouldn’t fancy – but that strong belief has been tested over the last few weeks by Deliveroo drivers, including one who managed to get lost on the three minute drive from Bakery House to my house. I’m not convinced that some of Deliveroo’s drivers have ever been to Reading before, a view only reinforced by the fact that my last one pulled up in a black cab after I had spent ten minutes tracking him going anywhere but in the vague direction of my front door.
There were no such hairy moments with this order, and I tracked my driver making the smooth five minute journey from the restaurant to my house, only panicking slightly as he overshot and had to be waved back to the front door where we were eagerly (and hungrily) waiting for him. The order was double bagged for extra insulation, and felt hot as we rushed it into the kitchen. The whole process, from placing the order to arrival, had taken just over twenty minutes on a Friday night: not bad going at all.
Reviewing takeaways is going to involve talking about very different things to the restaurant reviews. In a restaurant, plating and presentation are all perfectly reasonable things to talk about. At home, if it looks messy you’ve nobody but yourself to blame, and you might be prioritising speed over style: who could blame you, for that matter? Instead, we get to talk packaging, so here goes: the order arrived in two cardboard boxes and a few plastic tubs – hot food in the boxes, cold food in the tubs. For the salad and dips, this made perfect sense but for the halloumi, served on a bed of lettuce, it just meant that the halloumi went colder quicker and was decidedly lukewarm on arrival.
There was no such problem with the cardboard boxes, which were nicely branded and had a reflective silver lining to keep the food hot. One was filled with herb-flecked chips and big pillowy triangles of pitta bread, the other was absolutely replete with meat, a carnivore’s delight. The photo doesn’t do justice to just how much meat there was – aside from the kebabs and sausage you can see, there was another kebab tucked away underneath along with some more pork and the whole thing was on top of an awful lot of gyros meat, both chicken and pork.
We dished it all out onto plates as quickly as we could and got stuck in. We were more interested in it being quick than photogenic, which is why you have no photo of it all on the plate: I’ll do better next time, I promise. But it worked, because, with the exception of the halloumi, everything that was meant to be hot was hot. If you’re eating at the table (as civilised people do) rather than on your lap in front of Rick Stein’s Cornwall (as I did) I can see it would make sense just to stick it all on the table and let people pitch in, especially if you grab a mixed grill as we did.
And, on the evidence of my meal at least, you definitely should. The souvlaki, ironically given the restaurant’s name, were probably the least remarkable thing we had but were still decent – skewers of well-cooked chicken, lamb and pork. The lamb could have done with being a little softer and all of them would have benefited from more evidence of marination, but they all went perfectly with the dips – both a tomato one which was more tangy than spicy and an exemplary tzatziki full of julienned cucumber and a hefty whack of garlic.
Also excellent with both dips were the chips and the pita. I don’t know if Tasty Greek Souvlaki make their own chips, but if they don’t they’re very good at making you feel like they have. They were hot, crunchy and delicious and the speckled herbs all over them – oregano, I assume – were a very nice touch. And the pita was fluffy and downright terrific – better, or at least more to my taste, than Bakery House’s. The salad was just lettuce, peppers and cucumber – undressed, uninteresting and probably just there to offset some of the guilt of everything else. Two black olives failed to rescue matters: that’s a lot of heavy lifting to expect from olives. The halloumi was the biggest disappointment, as I said earlier, served on top of more undressed leaves and left to sweat in a plastic tub.
The rest of the mixed grill was where you found the really interesting stuff. A slab of pork was described as pork belly, but felt more like shoulder, as it lacked the fatty tenderness of belly. None the less, I thoroughly enjoyed it. I’m always dubious about things like “village sausage” as they can sometimes have a disturbingly smooth, homogenous texture (“all eyelids and arseholes”, as my ex-wife used to say), but this one was coarse, robust and herby. The “greek kebab”, essentially a kofta, was even better – juicy and deeply moreish.
All of what I’ve described so far would easily have been enough dinner for two people. But, just as we are so often drawn to things that aren’t necessarily good for us, the thing I really couldn’t get enough of was the gyros meat. It was worth the price of admission entirely on its own – ribboned shavings of chicken and pork, some crunchy-crispy, some soft and yielding but all of it deeply savoury and utterly drenched in flavour.
There was actually more of it than we could physically eat – and that’s saying something where I’m concerned – but having left some, I felt a deep sense of sadness that I hadn’t sacrificed a mouthful of souvlaki or that pointless halloumi so I could fit more in. It stayed in the mind for the rest of the evening, and I’d be lying if I said I hadn’t thought about it a fair few times since.
Normally, my peroration would conclude with a rating and I’ve thought long and hard about whether to include them in takeaway reviews. The problem is that when you review a restaurant meal, you’ve reviewing a collection of factors that are all, broadly speaking, under the control of that restaurant. Whether it’s cooked right, whether it sits there under the lights too long, whether it looks like a dog’s breakfast. Whether the wait staff are lovely and welcoming, whether the room feels like a home from home. If I eat somewhere and I’m not a fan I can point out why, but it will usually be down to the restaurant.
But with takeaways there are so many variables in a chain of events which isn’t all down to the restaurant. Some are – the selection, the food, the quality, the packaging and the pricing. But equally, some significant ones are not – like who delivers it, how they deliver it and how those staff are treated and incentivised. On this occasion everything worked perfectly, but if it hadn’t and it was the driver’s fault it would seem harsh to give the meal a poor rating which, in your mind, could well reflect on the restaurant alone. Like so many things about the post-Covid reality, this is complex and nuanced and I’m reluctant to boil it down to a number.
If that doesn’t suit you, and I’ll only put it like this on this one occasion, I’d say that ordering Tasty Greek Souvlaki through Uber Eats was a four star experience. I liked a lot of what I ate, I absolutely loved some of it, I thought it was extremely good value and I would do it again. Will that do? Possibly not: I’m sure some of you will be saying “what you’ve written sounds like a five star review to me”. That’s the other thing about ratings, they always kick off that discussion about whether you’ve been too kind, or too harsh.
Let me put put it this way instead: in the good old days, I would visit restaurants, love them and start mentally planning my next meal and what I would pick from the menu before I’d even paid my bill. In this brave new world, having committed to reviewing a takeaway every week in this third lockdown, I found myself wondering when I could fit in ordering a gyros wrap from Tasty Souvlaki for lunch into the bargain.
Surely there would be one day when I simply couldn’t face yet another cheese and pickle sandwich? Would it be so terrible to accidentally find myself on Uber Eats again? Perhaps I could get a cold beer out of the fridge that day and maybe, just maybe, there would even be sunshine. To my mind, food remains one of the best forms of escapism there is, and it’s beautiful, now more than ever, to be reminded of that. On the television, Rick Stein was knocking up something magnificent in his fancy Cornish kitchen but, somehow, I found I had no food envy at all.
Tasty Greek Souvlaki
20 Market Place, Reading, RG1 2EG
Order via: Deliveroo, JustEat and Uber Eats, or direct with the restaurant for collections.