JCI Grill Celebrates 95 Years And Its Greek Heritage With A Gyro Dog
To celebrate the restaurant’s 95 years in operation, JCI Grill is offering a special Gyro Dog topped with crispy-seared gyro meat, sliced red onions, tomatoes, feta cheese, and a variation on tzatziki sauce. It’s a nod to the restaurant’s Greek heritage and is a limited edition dog only available this summer for $6.99. Optional “Gyro Bites” can come alongside the Gyro Dog for an additional $3. These are Greek twists on mini-empanadas filled with ground gyro meat, cheese and onion, and are perfect for dipping in the tzatziki sauce. Houston Food Finder was invited to try the special dishes, as well as a few others inspired by different regions.
The special Gyro Dog pairs perfectly with JCI Grill’s large Greek salad. The $6.49 salad is surprisingly hearty, with thick slices of radish, cucumber and peppers sprinkled with capers, feta crumbles, Kalamata olives and then drizzled with Greek salad dressing. The dressing isn’t overly vinegary, which allows the flavors of the fresh produce to come through. Toasted bun pieces lend some crunch, and the bowl is rounded out with oregano and pepperoncini peppers. Adding grilled chicken for an additional charge under $2 makes this salad a great, satisfying meal for those on a low carb or Mediterranean diet.
Greek entrepreneurs James and Tom Papadakis founded James Coney Island, which was renamed five years ago to the more modern (and healthy sounding) JCI Grill. Tom lost the coin toss for the name. (Visit this link for more information on the Greek influence on coneys and hot dogs.)
The word gyro means “turned” because a cone of minced lamb and beef flavored with salt, paprika, pepper, parsley, garlic and oregano and roasted on a rotisserie. Then, pieces are shaved off and placed inside a pita.
Is it logical to marry a gyro and a hot dog? Before refrigeration, Greek Cypriots made preserved sausages made from pork tenderloin called lountza that they marinated in wine and then smoked. It’s a short jump from there to a Gyro Dog. (A similar fusion originated tacos al pastor when Lebanese immigrants brought their version of gyros to Mexico.)
In addition to the special, JCI Grill’s hot dog menu offers diners several other gourmet options, including the Nolan Ryan all-beef, kosher Hebrew National, Polish and coney versions. Many of the specialty dogs are the result of JCI Grill’s president Darrin Straughan’s peripatetic study of regional hot dogs. In addition, he was likely “reading the tea leaves” about the growing interest in fast-casual comfort foods.
Houstonians can go on their own regional hot dog study at JCI Grill, perhaps retracing the steps of the Papadakis brothers from Greece to NYC to Houston by trying the New York Dog for $3.69 and the BBQ Slaw Dog for $5.49. (JCI Grill has a Houston Dog, too, but it isn’t on the regular menu). The all-beef New York Dog with spicy mustard and sauerkraut has a classic simplicity that harkens to memories of a Jewish deli unsurprising since its origin was a nod to Nathan’s Famous. By contrast, the BBQ Slaw Dog topped with pulled pork, onion rings, jalapeño slaw, and a drizzle of sweet barbecue sauce is super meaty. You get your fill of spice and ‘cue with this dog.
As local author Paul Galvani writes in his recently released book, The Lost Restaurants of Houston, there are relatively few area restaurants that have continuously operated for more than 50 years. Founded in 1923, James Coney Island is the fourth oldest in the greater Houston area. The first location opened in an era when dining out was emerging as an activity for the masses, and classic American foods like hot dogs, hamburgers, ice cream, and pies were popular. It’s only one of many restaurants in the Houston area that were Greek-owned (or became Greek-owned soon after starting). Other Greek restaurant families include the Christie family of Christie’s Seafood, the Pappas family, the Massas family, the Bibas family of One’s A Meal, the Mickelis family of Cleburne Cafeteria, Demeris family of Demeris Barbecue, the Hrisinis family of Mykonos Island Restaurant, and the Fetokakis family of Niko Nikos.
Over time James Coney Island has transformed itself into JCI Grill and simultaneously preserved the time capsule of classic Greek “coneys” of its original menu while also adding a selection of gourmet hot dogs, including the BBQ Slaw Dog and the New York Dog.
We’ll only have to wait five more years to see if there will be a JCI Centennial Dog when the the grand dame turns 100. In the meantime, keep a lookout for the forthcoming “665 Dog Years” promotion featuring 95-cent coneys – 1 cent for each year in business – on the third Thursdays between May and September this year (May 17, June 21, July 19, August 16, and September 20). It’s a throwback to a time when nickel coneys were eaten at wooden school desks by everyone from wildcatters to newspapermen at the original 110 Walker location.