I tend to get obsessed with foods the way others get obsessed with songs or people; certain flavors and textures get stuck in my head and I feel this desperate need to consume them over and over. For a while it was Soup Junkie's crab and tomato soup. Spicy chive and pork dumplings from Shanghai Dumpling King. The pomme d'amore from Knead Patisserie. Now it's the pork salad at Souvla, Hayes Valley's 5-month-old Greek sandwich shop.
I like the concept of a "pork salad." It's delightful. As though anything studded with juicy hunks of American Homestead pork shoulder, complete with the luscious fatty bits, could be anything approaching healthy. True, the pork is counterbalanced by plenty of produce — fresh pea sprouts, cherry tomatoes, cucumber, lettuce, and kale — but their benefit is somewhat lessened by the dressing, a minted Greek yogurt sauce. It doesn't matter. Each bite is a mix of crunch and softness, savory and smooth, with a hint of spice if you apply the restaurant's house hot sauce (recommended). It appears in my head like a money shot in a Red Lobster commercial.
I live around the corner from Souvla which makes it easy to indulge, but judging by the crowds always there when I pick up my to-go orders, word's gotten out to the rest of the city. It's easy to understand why. San Francisco has a dearth of good Greek restaurants, a fact noted by chef/owner Charles Bililies, who was inspired by his Greek heritage to open a place named after the meat-roasting spits of Greece. And after a decade of working for chefs like Thomas Keller and Michael Mina, he has the know-how to pull off his vision.
The small restaurant is a pleasant place to be, with a casual, stripped-down design that echoes the sun-bleached, low-key feel of the Greek islands. The room's simplicity extends to the menu. Diners choose from four main items: pork, chicken, lamb, and vegetable, available in either sandwich or salad form. For sides there are crisp fries showered in salty mizithra cheese and oregano, and potatoes soaked in rotisserie drippings. For dessert, Greek frozen yogurt. To drink, Greek beverages: wines available by the glass and bottle, bottled beer, sparkling water, soft drinks.
That's it. But thanks to the elegant room — white walls, a skylight, a rotisserie, hanging copper kettles, large-format photographs of Greeks with impressive mustaches — Souvla feels more bistro than sandwich counter. And though the menu is short, it has complex ingredient combinations.
That pork salad is just as good as a sandwich, wrapped in flatbread made daily from Bililies' family recipe. My roommate can't get enough of the lamb, either in salad or sandwich form: juicy hunks of not-too-gamey Superior Farms lamb leg combined with harissa yogurt, cucumber, radish, pickled red onion, and feta.
Chicken, a popular choice (based on a survey of surrounding tables), comes with peeled naval orange slices and tangy Greek-style Ranch dressing, although the free-range Rocky Jr. meat has occasionally been dry. And the vegetarian combination of roasted white sweet potato, chopped kalamata olives, toasted walnuts, garlic yogurt, and mizithra is an inspired one, but I missed the generous protein portions in other combos.
Then again, protein can always come in the form of Greek frozen yogurt, tangy and thick and slightly sweet, made from a recipe Bililies developed with Delfina pastry chef Jessica Sullivan. This soft serve comes topped with your choice of sticky-syrupy baklava crumbles, olive oil and flaky sea salt, Cretan honey, or sour cherry syrup, though it would be just as good plain, all the better to savor its tartness.
Wash it all down with a glass of Greek wine — Bililies has assembled a collection that goes way behind the syrupy reds and acerbic retsinas that you may associate with wine from that part of the world. Rosé bubbles are light and flirty, while the red pairs well with lamb. There's also imported Zeos MAK lager, and lemon and sour cherry Greek soft drinks.
Bililies has ambitious plans to eventually expand the concept throughout the city, and from his experience with empire-builders like Keller and Mina he knows the importance of simplicity and consistency of vision. Though he plans to keep the menu short, he also plans to offer a few more items in the coming month that make sense for the neighborhood, like rotisserie chickens to go, a rotating sandwich of the month, and a more comprehensive brunch in the fall. And in the process, maybe giving me — or you — another dish to obsess over.