Juicy potatoes and pork shoulder souvlaki. All photos: © tablehopper.com.
A closer look at the lamb souvlaki.
Chicken salad with “Granch” dressing.
Greek fries with mizithra cheese, lemon juice, oregano, and olive oil.
Greek frozen yogurt (with olive oil, baklava, and vissino/sour cherry syrup).
Souvla’s light-filled (and popular) dining room.
I’m always on the hunt for a good salad, and one of the last places I expected to find one is at a souvlaki place. Well, ~SOUVLA~ in Hayes Valley is not your average souvlaki joint (as rare as they are in these parts), and most souvlaki joint owners don’t have a background that includes working as a culinary assistant at The French Laundry, a manager of Bouchon, and working for the Michael Mina Group.
Owner Charles Bililies, a Greek American, was inspired to take the classic souvlaki and do a Bay Area ingredient-driven, contemporary spin on it. Instead of mystery meat (you know, the weird “meat” they warm up in gyros), iceberg lettuce, out-of-season tomatoes, and dry pita bread, Bililies fills a custom-made, pillowy pita with slow-roasted lamb leg from the rotisserie (souvla means “spit”), plus cucumber, thinly sliced radish, harissa-spiked yogurt, pickled red onions, and creamy crumbles of feta cheese. Opa 2.0.
It’s a really good sandwich, well, when you get some juicy pieces of lamb. I’ve also had some pieces that were pretty dry and fibrous, so I had to shake some of the hot sauce that’s on the tables to juice it up, or just get a side of the yogurt sauce ($1) to begin with (you have four kinds to choose from). I’m just going to be a pain and ask for hella juicy lamb the next time, because there’s a lot to love about the sandwich when it all comes together. Bring on the succulence.
The pork shoulder version ($10) is a winner (I have yet to encounter a dry bite), and comes with cherry tomatoes and a minty version of their Greek yogurt. You can also get it with the chicken ($11), although I have a personal thing against fresh fruit in savory things, so in the future I’ll order it without the supremes of navel orange. And the pea shoots are cumbersome to eat—you look like a rabbit with the stems sticking out of your mouth (I’d be happy if the kitchen would chop ‘em up more). The occasional dry bite aside, the meats are local and from quality purveyors, and come well seasoned with herbs and spices. There’s also a vegetarian version with roasted white sweet potato ($9).
My problem is this: I can’t get the juicy, dripping, overloaded lamb souvlaki I had in Melbourne made by a ham-fisted Greek one night out of my mind. I want Souvla to offer an off-menu dirty version of their souvlaki, with extra meat and drippings. But that’s where the juicy potatoes ($4) come in—as a side, you get a bowl of creamy potatoes (spiked with fresh oregano) that have taken a long soak in the rotisserie drippings, they’re so damn good. I also love the really crisp Greek fries ($4)—you should tuck them into your souvlaki, or even better, put them on top of your salad. Did I just say that? I sure did.
So, the salads! They totally rock (they use a combo of kale and green lettuce). They’re huge—I usually can’t finish one, and end up coming back to it later. And the salads are the same price as the souvlaki, and are really satisfying (they’re full of texture) and well dressed. Sometimes all you want is a big-ass salad, and these are top of my list. Bonus: they use Postmates for bicycle-powered delivery (use referral code “marciag” and we both get $10 off the delivery fee, score). So if your fridge is bare and all you want is a big-ass salad for dinner, they travel well and are a good value.
Dining at Souvla is an aesthetically pleasing experience: you won’t recognize it as the former home of Sebo. The clean space is now bright and full of light (there’s also a skylight), with gleaming copper high-top tables and a communal table (35 seats in all), Greek pots and other cooking ephemera (from Bililies’s family) on the shelves, and stylish stools in gray and white that match the Carrara marble penny tiles underneath the back white oak counter (if you sit there, be sure to peek at what is written above the red phone for a chuckle). Actually, sitting at the back is definitely a warmer spot with the rotisserie nearby—some folks may want to sit closer to the front (unless it’s a chilly night, and then that’s where you’ll want to be).
Better yet: try jockeying for one of the three coveted seats at the outside counter on a warm afternoon or evening next to the olive trees—there’s no better spot to sit and enjoy a glass (or bottle) of their sparkling Greek rosé. Speaking of the wines, Souvla has an off-sale license, so you can get a bottle of whatever Greek wine you want to go (or nab a Greek beer), priced at retail. And even though this is an order-at-the-counter kind of spot, when the crew has a moment, they will still come over to fill your glass, clear your cute blue-trimmed enamel tray or bowl, and bring your frozen Greek yogurt over when it’s time for dessert.
About that frozen Greek yogurt ($4-$5): you can get it topped with sticky bites of baklava (my favorite), vissino (Greek sour cherry syrup), Greek olive oil and flaky sea salt (ask them to go light on the salt), or Cretan wildflower honey. It comes in the classic Greek coffee cup you see all over the East Coast, a clever nod. Actually, there are so many clever details and nods here—you can see a lot of thought went into every single thing. I’m always happy to see when a project really resonates with a personal point of view and an obvious passion for their heritage. And if you want a quick bite before the symphony or opera, I think it’s clear, here’s your spot.
This review was based on one lunch and one dinner visit, one takeout dinner, and one delivered dinner.