Going The Distance

In The Market For Grecian Treasure? Look No Further Than Marathon Gyros.

DETAILS OF DINING at Marathon Gyros always seem to elicit the same response:

"Is that place still open?"

Not only is Marathon Gyros, located directly across from the University of Arizona on East Sixth Street, still open, it's still thriving. Given the formidable structural changes within that zone in recent years and the tremendous turnover among its many neighboring businesses, the restaurant's longevity is a remarkable accomplishment.

To borrow a line from the estimable Mark Twain, the news of Marathon Gyros' death have been greatly exaggerated.

The restaurant hasn't changed much since it first started serving gyros sandwiches and spanakopita in 1974. The somewhat modest storefront conceals a sizable interior consisting of three separate dining areas. Posters and photographs of various locales within the Greek isles distinguish the design scheme along with classic columns and arches. Although the eatery is a bit worn at the edges, it's clean, bright and welcoming.

Open for lunch and dinner Monday through Saturday, Marathon Gyros still boasts the same menu it offered diners over two decades ago. On several occasions many years ago, I'd grab a gyros sandwich at Marathon before my next class, and I recall the quick meal cost me well under $5. Amazingly, the price is not much different today. A gyros alone is a mere $4.50, but if you decide to accompany your sandwich with a drink and a slice of gooey warm baklava, you'll have to part with slightly more.

Marathon Gyros' namesake item is quite simply one of the best in town. Thin, savory slices of roasted lamb and beef seasoned with garlic, oregano and black pepper nestle into a pita with slices of tomato and onion, and a splash of cool satziki sauce -- a creamy blend of yogurt and minced cucumber occasionally sprinkled with freshly chopped mint. When a gyros is done well, with every ingredient fresh and properly prepared, the Olympian gods could very well abandon their ambrosia for it.

At Marathon Gyros, this transcendent dish is available to mortals, and the restaurant enhances the sandwich's appeal by making it incredibly large. With the gyros' stomach-filling capacity, cost-to-value ratio and balanced nutritional components, it's an ideal student staple.

For those seeking meatless fare, the restaurant also expertly prepares two standard favorites, falafel and spinach pie.

The falafel sandwich ($4.25) places the crispy fried croquettes of ground chickpeas -- liberally seasoned with minced onion, parsley, garlic, cumin and coriander -- inside a pita with tomato, onion, green pepper, lettuce and cucumber sauce. Marathon Gyros' take on this popular Middle Eastern dish is perfect. Every bite of the tender, savory falafel is a delight.

The crisp and golden spanakopita (small order $4.25; large order $5.95), filo dough filled with chopped spinach, onion, parsley, dill weed and feta cheese, is another Marathon Gyros marvel. The eatery's version of this spinach pie emphasizes the spinach rather than the pastry, which, although delicious, can become a bit doughy when too densely layered. This rendition highlights the virtues of the delicate and delectable vegetable filling.

Soup and salads offer a lighter approach. The Grecian salad (small $5.50, large $6.25) tosses mixed greens, crumbled feta cheese, kalamata olives, tomatoes, cucumber, peperoncini, green peppers and anchovies in a light olive oil vinaigrette. Although the salad imparts no surprises, it is nevertheless fresh and appealing.

The chicken avgolemono soup (cup $1.60, bowl $3.25) is a gentle potage thickened with egg yolk, accented with lemon juice and punctuated with white rice. Tempting even as the weather turns warmer, this dish is Greek comfort food at its finest.

An appetizer of saganaki flambé ($6.50) -- a thick cube of kefalotiri cheese that has been soaked in brandy, fried in olive oil, sprinkled with fresh lemon juice and set aflame for a dramatic presentation -- is slightly salty, and chewy rather than gooey. It's a special opener for any meal at Marathon Gyros.

Dinner selections and combinations frequently offer larger portions and soup or salad, as well as choice of rice pilaf, Greek pasta or roasted potatoes. Roast leg of lamb, dolmades (stuffed grape leaves) and moussaka are traditional, but I opted for the chicken reganati ($10.75), half a bird broiled with lemon juice, garlic and oregano. Unfortunately, this dish was the only disappointment I encountered at the eatery. Although a dab of scordalia (garlic sauce) improved the flavor of the dry meat, the dish can't compare to the rest of the menu. My companion, who was enjoying the spanakopita dinner with a side of Greek pasta (diced flat pasta baked in a tomato sauce nuanced with cinnamon) and green salad, was much happier with his choice.

What would a Greek meal be without a tiny wedge of baklava ($2.75)? At Marathon Gyros, the intensely sweet treat of layered filo dough, ground walnuts, cinnamon and honey syrup is served warm. While the heating process tends to toughen the pastry a bit, it also releases the cinnamon's heady aroma. Rice pudding, turtle cheesecake and chocolate mousse cake are other possible conclusions to your meal.

So yes, Marathon Gyros is still open, doing business along East Sixth Street much the way it always has. And lucky for us.

Marathon Gyros Restaurant And Lounge. 1134 E. Sixth St. 623-1020. Open 11 a.m. to 9:30 p.m. Monday through Thursday, 11 a.m. to 10:30 p.m. Friday and Saturday. Closed Sunday. Full bar. Cash or checks only. No credit cards. Menu items: $1.50-$12.95.