Quick Lunch: The Gyro Sandwich at Papa Cristo’s in Pico-Union

Gyro Sandwich from Papa Cristo's
Photo by Farley Elliott

Just east of Mid-City, itself a much-beloved neighborhood, you’ll find Pico-Union. Closer to downtown, this middle-space ‘hood takes slices of Koreatown, Guatemala and Mexico and patches them all together, with a not-insignificant Greek influence as well. This is where L.A.’s annual Greek Festival is held, surrounding a large orthodox church on the southeast corner of Pico and Normandie. And right across the street, look for the big blue awning to find Papa Cristo’s.

The Greek taverna / bakery has long been a home for hungry locals and quick-service lunchers needing a bite before moving on to points elsewhere. After 65 years it’s almost become part of the city dining zeitgeist, a favored place that is so reliable, so comforting, it’s rarely discussed. Not that anyone is trying to keep the sprawling corner eatery a secret; Papa Cristo’s just always has been, and always will be there.

For newcomers and those looking to reconnect, that’s a good thing. Chris S. Chris, the amiable owner with the big mustache and wide-open arms, loves to chat with anyone who comes in the door, from longtime regulars to new customers gawking at the bakery’s olive oil collection. Of course, he’ll also point you to the free dipping samples of their fresh breads, back to the deli counter for Greek-influenced meats and cheeses, then over to the ordering counter to pick up something hot to sit down and enjoy. That small walk-up nook, found just to the right if entering from the front, holds a hang-down menu as varied as those bottles of olive oil. There are whole grilled chickens, stuffed grape leaves, assorted spanakopita on offer, and a large, slowly whirring vertical spit, warming and crisping a mix of lamb and beef as it turns against the flames. If you don’t have long for lunch, that’s the stuff you’re after.

The meat is shaved and given a final once-over on the stovetop, before being plated up and served with a side of pita. Better yet, opt for the sandwich to have the whole thing built for you, stacked with chunks of lettuce, a few bites of tomato and lots of creamy tzatziki sauce. Warm, freshly wrapped and ready to devour, these hefty sandwiches make for a perfectly satisfying meal all by themselves.

Baklava from Papa Cristo's
Of course, if you’re already at Papa Cristo’s, it probably couldn’t hurt get some baklava on your way out, right? Sticky, sweet, nutty and delicate, the storefront makes these in sheets throughout the day, ensuring a warm piece is never far away. Taken with a fork or done in by hand, these small squares pack a ton of flavor, and will leave you needing to wash up when you’re done, unless you like the idea of getting honey on all of your clothing, and in your hair, and on your steering wheel…

The same could be said for Papa Cristo’s in general. The place stays with you, long after you’ve left. The food is straightforward and satisfying, without pretension, and the amiable staff and great selection of takeaway goods make for a wonderful lunch excursion. And then, after you haven’t been there in what seems like forever, you’ll find a little fleck of spanakopita dough stuck to a jacket or your car’s dashboard, and you’ll remember again why Papa Cristo’s is great. And you’ll be happy that it’s always there.

Papa Cristo’s: 2771 W, Pico Blvd, Pico-Union; 323-737-2970. papacristos.com

Farley Elliott is a food and travel writer living in Los Angeles. He is the Senior Editor at Eater LA, and has bylines everywhere from LA Weekly to Los Angeles Magazine to Thrillist to Tasting Table. He’s also the author of Los Angeles Street Food, a guidebook to LA’s amazing street food culture. Oh, and he’s that guy from that Tiny Hamster Eating Tiny Burritos video.