In college, just before the paper boys started their routes, before dawn revealed the wreckage of Rugby Road, we knew where to go. It was a stool at the White Spot, where fellow University of Virginia Wahoos waited for their Gus Burgers. The thin beef patty, the fried egg, the slick of grease washed away the sins of the evening.
At Cornell it is the Bell Burger. At Georgia Tech, the Varsity Burger.
But now I will tell you something that may shake you. In many parts of Western Europe, young people stumble across quieting college campuses, revelers spill out of bars after last call and they think this: Doner kebab. It is not hamburger, not even in Hamburg.
Doner has become the reigning late-night fast food in much of Europe. Some of this can be explained by immigration — an influx of Turks in the 1970s laid the foundation for doner madness in Berlin. But the real explanation is more likely to be found in the building blocks themselves: This is a craft-your-own sandwich, with lots of variation in veggies, sauces, spice level, all tucked into a warm bread that's tidy enough to be consumed while walking.
Two Tampa Bay newcomers showcase the convenience and flexibility of the breed. Mo'Ziki in Largo and Dooners in downtown St. Petersburg both operate a little like Middle Eastern Subways, with an eye toward healthy options. The former specializes in what it calls "Greek-inspired flavors," while the latter is an approximation of the classic German/Turkish doner shop.
Gyros is the Greek word for seasoned, vertically spit-roasted and shaved meat, doner is the Turkish word, and shawarma is the Lebanese/Egyptian version of essentially the same thing. Seasoning can be different. Doner is usually fairly mild; shawarma can sometimes be flavored gently with cinnamon and coriander seed and be composed of strips of meat rather than blended, molded meat; gyros can lean toward oregano and is usually sliced thicker.
Breads range from pita to naan to thinner wraps and flatbreads, and sauces can be either yogurt- or tahini-based.
Both Mo'Ziki and Dooners feel like chain prototypes, and that's because they are. Mo'Ziki owners Josh Bowles and Geoff Brown have been in the food business for many years. Dooners owners Zohra and Azim Neiro had a restaurant business in Hanover, Germany. They all see these new fast-casual ventures as filling a niche, concepts that might prove replicable. I tend to agree.
The core of the Dooners menu is a trio of spits, one with a classic beef/lamb doner mold, one of chicken (made more healthful with all white meat, no poultry skin or fat) and another of turkey. These are sliced and either zipped into naan pockets with white and red cabbage, tomato, cuke, red onion and tzatziki, or in a wrap or on a salad. The naan (offered in white or 50 cents more for wheat) are made locally by a Turkish baker, who also is responsible for several slightly tough burreck pastries filled variously with spinach and feta, potatoes and onions or ground beef (all $5.99).
In sandwiches ($5.29-$8.50) or salads ($5.49, $1.99 extra for meat on top), what makes Dooners appealing is dozens of plastic insets containing olives, peppers, onions, olives, garbanzo beans, lentils and other veggies. Customers pick a sandwich or wrap, then point at all the ingredients they want heaped aboard. The results can be as riotous or puritanical as you want, the finished product assembled in the blink of an eye.
Similar allures await at Mo'Ziki, where the most exciting things are the sauces, a passel of flavored tzatzikis (thus the restaurant name), from roasted red pepper to lemon avocado. These serve as dippers or drizzles on pitas, wraps, bowls, salads or Greek-style quesadillas (go cheddar blend and avoid feta in these, because it doesn't melt well). Toppers include gyros (made in nearby Tarpon Springs), marinated and sliced chicken, Greek-style steak, a jumble of roasted vegetables or a big dollop of very tasty hummus. Then, as at Dooners, choose the garnishes, from kalamata olives to pickled beets and pepperoncini. Finished dishes are fresh-tasting and generous (maybe too generous with the meats), the soft, buttery pita a tasty receptacle for the meats and veggies.
No disrespect to Varsity or Gus burgers, but if doner/gyros like these are young people's go-to late-night noshes, things are moving in a hopeful direction. Cheap and hearty and filling, sure, but Dooners and Mo'Ziki offer enough healthy enticements to keep party people eating their vegetables.
Laura Reiley can be reached at [email protected] or (727) 892-2293. She dines anonymously and unannounced. The Times pays all expenses. Advertising has nothing to do with selection for review or the assessment.