Modern Greek

Opa Opa

5644 J St.
Sacramento, CA 95819

(916) 451-4000

If there’s any type of restaurant cuisine that could benefit from a modernizing makeover, it might just be Greek food. Not that there’s anything really wrong with most Greek restaurants; it’s just that generally you know exactly what you’ll get at such places: that tinkly music, blue and white décor, and a moderately priced menu of the usual staples. There are a few excellent Bay Area restaurants that have broken out of this formula with upscale, delicious Greek food, including Kokkari Estiatorio in San Francisco and its sister restaurant, Evvia Estiatorio, in Palo Alto.

Here in Sacramento, the new restaurant Opa! Opa! has gone in the other direction, offering quick, casual and inexpensive Hellenic fare—some usual suspects and some unexpected—in a hipper-than-average setting. You move through in a line, order at the counter (a system that has a few kinks that still need to be worked out) and get your food dished up or grilled to order (though some things are preassembled). More than one person described the restaurant to me as “like Jack’s Urban Eats, but Greek.”

It’s a great concept, particularly since so many Greek favorites are fresh or quickly grilled. I spotted a lot of yummy-looking souvlaki (skewers), for instance, of which they have a full range, including chicken, lamb and veggie. The menu is long enough—including salads, sandwiches, plenty of pita items and moussaka—that it’s tough to decide on just one thing. I also found the menu distractingly verbose; each dish has a long explanation, with a tone that veers between chatty, goofy and ingratiating. We ended up with an assortment, including a traditional spanakopita appetizer and a more unusual pita pizza. The latter, like the restaurant, was a great concept but—also not unlike Opa! Opa! itself—a touch flawed in the execution.

The spanakopita, a little triangle of crunchy phyllo folded over a feta-and-spinach filling, was nicely executed. They griddle it to order, giving the phyllo a textural boost and a nice bit of toasting, and it comes with some fresh veggies on the side and a yogurt-cucumber dip that was good with other items as well.

My husband went for the gyros sandwich, folded into a fluffy Greek-style pita, with onion, tomato and tzatziki. It reminded him, he said, of his college days in Montreal, where gyros were a staple cheap meal. The meat, a beef-lamb combo, could have been moister, but it was nicely seasoned.

At $5.95, the sandwich was nice and filling; we opted to add a small salad. For $2.75, you get a small bowl of one of the “pre-tossed” salads, in our case the Summer in Athens (horiatiki), a mixture of tomatoes, cucumbers and onions. Cucumbers rarely benefit from sitting around, and this salad had muddied flavors that weren’t helped by what seemed to be dried herbs, which added a dusty note. The price seemed a bit high for the size of the bowl, too. In general, Opa! Opa! keeps prices low, but they’re occasionally a little uneven.

The Greek pita pizza, for instance, seemed awfully small for the price (the same as the gyros). There are three varieties in all; this one came with marinara, feta and casari cheeses (though I could only find the feta), kalamata olives, artichoke and red onion. It was freshly grilled, with a nice smoky flavor and distinct grill stripes on the underside of the pita, but, despite that, the middle of the crust was soggy. I wondered if it had been preassembled and then grilled at the last minute. Had it been sturdier, it would have been a success: The tomato sauce had notes of cinnamon, the cheese was a nice sharp contrast, and the crisp edges of the pita were excellent. People should watch out, though, for the unpitted olives.

More successful was a barbecued-leg-of-lamb sandwich with minty feta-goat cheese spread, onions and deliciously tender spiced meat. It comes on a roll with tomatoes and lettuce, and it was a real winner. We also tried a side of the roast potatoes, which were, again, deliciously flavored—and unusually so, with garlic and lemon—but problematic in texture. Some were undercooked, and none had the crisp golden edges one would like; instead, they seemed to have been sitting around.

Creamy macaroni and cheese, which we ordered for our 10-month-old daughter, had nothing Greek about it (I had hoped for an intriguing version with Greek cheeses). Instead, it seemed to be made with unctuous Velveeta or some other highly processed cheese, making it quite serviceable as a toddler meal.

Desserts are available not in Opa! Opa! proper, but in a little adjunct next-door, called Sweetie’s, which has a Jelly Belly dispenser bar as well as a large case of cookies, tarts, cakes and the inevitable baklava. (Desserts are not made in-house but provided by area bakeries.) I took a square of baklava home, and it was great with coffee the next day: light and flaky, easy on the syrup, and only modestly sweet, with a great nutty flavor. A Florentine cookie, on the other hand, was thick and heavy.

I came away convinced that the best things at Opa! Opa!, for all its pleasantly modern gloss, were the Greek-food basics, particularly those things that are cooked before your eyes. Despite a few problems with some of the food, this is a good spot for a quick, filling and inexpensive lunch. If you go expecting that, and order the uncomplicated entrees, you’re likely to leave happy.