Getting Greek food on Colfax Avenue is as natural to Denverites as leaving the snow on the sidewalks for the sun to melt or pushing the stroller into a bar to enjoy a pint or two of IPA with the baby. A stretch of the road near East High School was even designated Greek Town in the late 1990s, thanks to Takis Dadiotis, then the owner of Pete's Greek Town Cafe. Greek Town hasn't quite blossomed into the ethnic neighborhood that Dadiotis envisioned, but Colfax, at least along the trendy stretches in Capitol Hill and near Congress Park, has cleaned up its act a little and now presents modern storefronts and hip restaurants along with the usual host of cart pushers, bus-stop lingerers and scowling punks. West Colfax, though, is a different story. Revitalization efforts have added fast-casual joints and modern strip-mall facades, but much of it, especially west of Denver city limits, still has the feel of drive-through territory. This is where you'll find Yianni's Gyros Place (10450 West Colfax in Lakewood ), a simple short-order joint opened in 2010 to serve Greek favorites to locals weary of the cross-town drive.
Pulling into the parking lot, I got the distinct impression that I had driven farther than any of that evening's customers to get to Yianni's. Although it wasn't busy, there were more customers inside than cars outside. A couple of dudes in Affliction T-shirts waited on a couch for their take-out orders; other guests spread themselves thin in the sparsely tabled dining room -- some reading newspapers, others quietly eating with a few words thrown out between bites.
Two young cooks took orders with an economic use of words -- "chicken or pork?" "sandwich or plate?" -- and equally efficient movements around the kitchen, dropping fry baskets into hot oil, shaving thin curls of meat from the gyros rotisserie. We sat at a table and watched an almost silent shuffle of diners come and go, the traffic sounds of Colfax muffled by the big front window, the muted TVs tuned to a soccer game that no one watched.
Our food arrived all at once with a quick drop-off and retreat: glistening dolmades, a slightly deflated spanakopita (called spinach pie on the menu), mounds of fries forming buttresses between sandwich halves and chunks of grilled pork. My sandwich was a surprise: Why I didn't expect a grilled gyros sandwich thick with molten mozzarella when I ordered the gyros melt is beyond me. But that's what I got, and it was good, just like its namesake patty melt, only with a garlicky, toothsome beef and lamb blend compliments of Devanco Foods ("Chicago's favorite"), the brand proudly announced on several wall-mounted posters. Despite my initial confusion, this Greek-American amalgamation proved to be a grand idea in grill-cook cleverness. The pork souvlaki, almost as certainly outsourced as the gyros, wasn't bad, either, if maybe a little dry. A dose of tzatziki cured that and added rich yogurt tang to the char-grilled and well- seasoned bites of meat. The sauce seemed fresh-made, or at least well-sourced. Yianni's scatters in enough homestyle Greek touches to keep its food from drifting into greasy-spoon territory. The dolmades are as good as any from a grocery with a decent deli -- firm and minty, if not quite worthy of a grandmother's praise. The spinach pie was stuffed full of cheesy spinach, but was probably warmed in a microwave. No matter. Real kalamata olives, unpitted, and cubes of mild feta cheese accented the souvlaki plate and I cleaned it except for a few scraps of iceberg lettuce.
This is all a place like Yianni's needs to be: cheap, filling, spiked with occasional bursts of genuine flavor. The dudes in their black T-shirts, the guy hiding behind his newspaper, the young couple who got a deal on some nearby Lakewood real estate -- these people left happy, and so did I. Not exactly fast food, not the labor of a highly trained kitchen brigade, a meal at Yianni's falls somewhere in between -- like this stretch of Colfax that's not a destination but a just link between other places.
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For more from our tour of Denver's cultural, regional and international restaurant scene, check out our entire Ethniche archive.