Appetizer causes fiery spectacle; why Modesto bistro’s patrons keep ordering it

I’m kind of a sucker for a good appetizer when eating out – who isn’t, right?

Add in some flames and audience participation and it’s a delicious trifecta when you order the saganaki at Papapavlos in north Modesto – a flaming plate of appetizer cheese that gets everyone’s attention at the inviting Greek/Mediterranean bistro.

Just know that your order is a public event. A waiter brings a small table into the dining room, replete with a rectangle of imported Kasseri cheese, a wee pitcher of ouzo, splash of lemon juice and, of course, a lighter. The goat cheese – which restaurant owner David Alonso likened a bit to Parmesan – is doused in the ouzo and lit.

The alcohol ignites in a brief but flaming spectacle to the loud cries of “Opa” from the tables of patrons. It’s a kick every time it happens.

 ‘Opa’ is a big celebration word for the Greek people,” Alonso said, and diners always know to chime in. “It’s our most popular appetizer.”

It’s easy to see why: the saganaki is delicious – warm and bubbly with a creamy center and a subtle, pleasant tang under a delicately browned shell.

Served with warmed triangles of pita bread, the Kasseri’s goat cheese zip makes for a nice pairing with many wines, Alonso suggests. “There’s a unique flavor to the cheese that really clears your palate so you can enjoy your wine a lot better.”

There’s another bit of fire show at Papapavlos – an open kitchen, where customers can watch as chefs whip up their meals. “It’s part of the ambiance,” lead server Pedro Ayala said of the cook’s-eye view. He also agreed that the saganaki is particularly popular, with 10 or more orders on an average Friday or Saturday night.

Of course, saganaki isn’t the only appetizer on the Papapavlos menu, which carries mostly Greek but also other Mediterranean dishes. The restaurant is tucked away in a Standiford Avenue strip mall, just off Tully Road. You can’t tell from the outside, but enter and you’re in for a white-tablecloth, full-bar, fine-dining experience.

Also popular with patrons are the lamb chops – a particular point of pride for Alonso. “I don’t think anybody does lamb chops the way we do,” he said. He only orders in the “best, corn-fed chops,” which marinate for 24 hours before being grilled. “They’re really tender and that’s the thing I get people coming in and craving, the lamb chops.”

Alonso bought Papapavlos 10 years ago from its previous owners (the Pappas family still owns its restaurant by the same name in Stockton). His brother Jose was a cook there and Alonso himself had worked in Bay Area restaurants in the 1990s and then in corporate dining. Today, he has two more eateries – Papapolloni Bistro in Oakdale and Famiglia Bistro on McHenry Avenue in Modesto – all family affairs, with one brother managing Familia Bistro and two others helming Papapolloni.

And Jose now is head chef at Papapavlos, where customers can savor traditional casseroles such as spanakopita, moussaka or pastitsio and other Greek dishes or opt for gourmet pizza, pasta or seafood selections. “We make everything in-house,” Alonso said. “Nothing is premade, nothing defrosted, even our desserts are homemade.”

It’s been a recipe for success – along with a little fire and spectacle added to the menu. Opa!

209 Tidbits

Share your thoughts: I’m looking to highlight classic sandwiches available in the region. Where can a gal get a good Philly Cheesesteak in the area? A Po’ Boy? Banh Mi? Got another sandwich favorite? Send me a line to or comment on Facebook.

Now open: A promised new dining spot has officially opened on the edge of downtown, serving tapas, wine and cold brews. Tye Bauer, owner and chef at Bauer’s 66 1/2 Skillet & Grill in McHenry Village, launched his new Bauhaus lounge in April at the corner of Downey Avenue and Scenic Drive. The cozy global tapas spot serves self-cured and smoked meats, small plates and pizzas.

Celebrate food and drink: May brings a few culinary fests to the area and two are coming up fast. First up, on Sunday, May 7, is the annual Jewish food and cultural celebration Cafe Shalom at Congregation Beth Shalom. Partake from 9 a.m. to 2 p.m. at CBS, 1705 Sherwood Ave., Modesto. Tickets are $18 advance, $20 at the door; $10 age 5-12, free under age 5.

The next weekend, hoist a few cold ones at the Central Valley Brewfest, set for Saturday, May 13. Organizers promise more than 150 beers and food trucks on site. Age 21-and-older event runs noon to 5 p.m. at the Stanislaus County Fairground, 900 N. Broadway, Turlock. Tickets are $35 in advance, $40 at the door; $15 for designated drivers.

Next time: Is it cake? Pie? Who cares, just eat it.


Where: 1320 Standiford Ave., Modesto

Hours: 11 a.m.-9 p.m. Mondays-Thursdays; 11 a.m.-10 p.m. Fridays-Saturdays; 11 a.m.-8:30 p.m. Sundays

Prices: $7.50-$30.95

Call: 209-525-3995