How to eat like a Modestan. Tour the city’s Top 10 iconic food and drink spots

When folks say “Only in Modesto,” it’s typically with a head shake or a resigned laugh.

But our 147-year-old city, which welcomes all to enjoy its “Water Wealth Contentment Health,” has plenty more to feel good about. And that includes its rich and renowned dining history. Our community offers a diverse array of food and drinks that we can say with pride are “Only in Modesto.” These distinctive dishes, drinks and dining experiences are quintessentially Modesto.

Whether you’ve lived in the city your whole life or just moved here, giving these iconic offerings all a try is one of the best parts of being a Modestan.

So here are the Top 10 signature food and drinks you can get “Only in Modesto.”

Old Mill Cafe

Breakfast at the Old Mill: Modesto’s oldest continually running restaurant, the original Old Mill opened in 1934 and was famous for its namesake windmill. Perched right by the train tracks at Ninth and Needham streets, the structure started out as a blacksmith shop. In 1934 it was rebuilt as a lunch counter with seven booths. But in 2001 the cafe was forced to move to make way for the new Kansas Avenue-Needham Street overpass. The old building was leveled, but the more than 80-year-old restaurant carries right along at its current, larger location at 600 Ninth Street.

Address: 600 9th St., Modesto


Minnie’s Restaurant

A Jerk at Minnie’s: Stepping inside is like entering another world. Enjoy the black velvet paintings of women from the Pacific Islands in various states of undress and marvel at the decades of dollar bills stapled to the walls. Minnie Woo and Hop Louie opened Minnie’s in 1955 near the base of McHenry Avenue and it has remained one of the city’s most popular Chinese restaurants and bars since. The jerk was created to silence some obnoxious customers by Peter Mah, whose family bought the restaurant decades ago and served as its head cook and frontman until his death in 2013. But beware because this innocent-looking pink concoction packs a powerful punch thanks to its light and dark rum with a splash of 151-proof rum poured down the straw for good measure. One will make you feel great, two will make you feel invincible, three will make you want to dance with the women in the black velvet paintings.

Address: 107 McHenry Ave., Modesto



Mr. T’s Delicate Donut

A doughnut at Mr. T’s: I pity the fool who has never gone to Mr. T’s for a cruller, maple bar, old fashioned or even a plain glazed doughnut. Because these are hands down some of the city’s very best. But don’t just take my word for it. Earlier this year the 24-hour shop was named one of the nation’s best by Business Insider. It ranked 13 out of the list of top 15 across the country. Opened in 1989 in the north Modesto Frontier Village shopping center, it offers around-the-clock doughy goodness to satisfy your sweet tooth whenever a craving arrives. Just go ahead and buy a dozen, you’ll thank me later.

Address: 3507 Tully Road, Modesto




St. Stan’s Brewery

A beer at St. Stan’s: Modesto’s first microbrewery was part of the vanguard of California’s craft brew movement in the 1980s. Opened in 1984, St. Stan’s Brewery sat at its original Ninth and L streets for more than 30 years. In its heyday it distributed to 17 states and seven countries. But then a series of ownership changes for the adjoining restaurant caused its slow decline and it shuttered in 2015. But then this summer new owners reopened St. Stan’s after buying its name and original recipes. You can again sample the iconic beer brand at its new tap room now on 11th Street. So hoist a pint of Graffiti Wheat or Amber and cheers to Modesto.

Address: 1028 11th St., Modesto


Noah’s Hof Brau

A combo plate at Noah’s: German hof brau fare meets Chinese food in this unique downtown Modesto lunchtime staple. Opened around 1958 at 917 J Street, now in the Brenden Theatres location, it started as a more traditional hof brau serving up roast beef and turkey from its namesake, Noah F. Wisely. But in 1971 it was sold to Choon Lew who added Chinese food to the menu. The result is a singular East-meets-West dining excursion. It has since changed owners and moved a couple blocks up, next door the the State Theatre. But to this day you still get a plate pile high with BBQ pork and chow mein or corned beef and mashed potatoes.

Address: 1311 J St., Modesto


Scenic Drive-In

A knockout burger at Scenic Drive-In: As one of the city’s oldest drive-ins, it also has the honor of having the most to-die-for location. Situated right alongside the historic cemeteries on Scenic Drive, this burger stand has been feeding Modesto at its outdoor picnic tables since 1956. The unusual site gives the Scenic Drive-In the the distinction of being the only burger joint in town where you can so directly contemplate your own mortality. Its vintage neon sign proudly proclaims it the home of the Knockout Burger, a beefy patty topped with lettuce, tomato, bacon, cheese, avocado and jalapenos. They also make Knockout fries and Knockout hotdogs. But perhaps practice moderation, lest you move in permanently next door.

Address: 1151 Scenic Drive, Modesto


Tiki Cocktail Lounge

A cocktail at The Tiki: One of the city’s longest-running local bars, the Polynesian-themed spot has continued to embrace its kitsch aesthetic over the decades. Open 365 days a year, The Tiki — as locals call it — has been home to last call for countless Modestans, and no doubt countless more to come. When it debuted in 1964, grand opening advertisements touted the spot as a trip to the “South Seas.” You can’t miss the bar thanks to its A-frame structure with the name “TIKI” in bamboo spelled out in a slant across the front. The crowd has fluctuated over the years, but it is now a vibrant LGBTQ bar that is inclusive to all.

Address: 932 McHenry Ave., Modesto




Taco Trucks

A taco at a taco truck: Whether you prefer the lineup on Eight Street, stalls on Crows Landing Road or have your own favorite elsewhere, taco trucks have been a ubiquitous part of the Modesto food landscape since at least the early 1980s. They offer cheap, fast and tasty fare – and those looking for a more adventurous and authentic Mexican street food experience can sample cuts like lengua (tongue), cabeza (head) and tripas (small intestines). Or, get a burrito as big as your forearm and feel full for the whole day. If you haven’t popped in for a quick lunch or a late-night nosh at some point, have you really been living in Modesto?

Address: Various

A&W Drive-In

A root beer float at A&W: Yes, this is the list’s one chain restaurant (though A&W Root Beer was actually founded in 1919 in Lodi, of all places — the more you know). But this iconic drive-in, which opened in 1958 to much fanfare at the corner of 14th and G street, stands out for its distinctly Modesto entertainment. Skates-wearing servers still roll up to your car window to deliver your order. And, in homage to the city’s “American Graffiti” fame, every summer weekend since 1996 the parking lot becomes ground zero for Elvis impersonators and classic cars. So bring your lawn chairs to enjoy the free Elvis tribute shows and karaoke Friday and Saturday nights, respectively, while sipping a frehsly made root beer float.

Address: 1404 G St., Modesto




E. & J. Gallo Winery

A glass of Gallo wine: New visitors to our city may be excused for not realizing right away that the world’s largest winery resides right here. E.J. Gallo Winery doesn’t have a large sign outside its building or offer public tours. But make no mistake the company that brothers Ernest and Julio Gallo founded in Modesto in 1933 has grown to become internationally acclaimed. While the family-owned company maintains a modest profile about its sprawling Yosemite Avenue headquarters, the Gallo legacy can be seen across town in other ways including the city’s premiere entertainment venue the Gallo Center for the Arts and nearby fine dining establishment Galletto Ristorante (which both serve Gallo wine, by the way). Gallo sells more than 90 brands including table and sparkling wines, dessert wines and distilled spirits. So chances are pretty good if you turn over a bottle of whatever wine you’re sipping, it will say made and bottled in “Modesto, CA” right on the back.

Address: Various

So how many of these signature Modesto eats and drinks have you tried? Any you think we left off? Go get your grub on, Modesto.

Marijke Rowland writes about new business, restaurant and retail developments. She has been with The Modesto Bee since 1997 covering a variety of topics including arts and entertainment. Her Business Beat column runs multiple times a week. And it’s pronounced Mar-eye-ke.
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