Modern Odyssey

There’s Greek food, and then there’s Greek food.

Just as we’ve learned to enjoy the vivid flavor distinctions between Northern Italian cooking from that of southern Naples and to differentiate Szechuan from Cantonese, it’s time to appreciate that all Greek restaurants are not created equal. It’s a matter of apples and oranges, so to speak: similarly delicious but with enticing differences.

Gus Parpas, who with his wife, Carol, launched Christos on Eat Street in 1988 (before it was Eat Street), was born in Cyprus. Driven from his extended family’s home by bombings in the bitter war that left the island severely partitioned, he came to America to study and to polish his English — and, happily, to marry Carol, a classmate who lured him back to her native Minnesota.

Gus was neither a restaurateur by trade, nor by heritage — unless you count the bounteous meals he consumed in Cyprian tavernas when his relatives frequently got together — but, arguably, it’s in his DNA. “I decided to open a restaurant because I like food, but even more, the people aspect,” he declares. “Everybody becomes a friend. You see kids grow up and come in with kids of their own. Nowadays, we even lead tours to Greece for the many customers who’ve become friends,” he says.

The easy smile that seldom leaves his face belies a bit of a bumpy start. “In 1988, this [stretch of Nicollet] was a tough strip — drugs, prostitution.” A streetscape project in the culinary cognoscenti from MCAD and the Institute of Art nearby had adopted the sunny dining room, dressed in the white and blue of Aegean sand and sea.

The back-office part came naturally to Gus, who approached the venture armed with business skills. And hosting guests was second nature. But the kitchen was “always a challenge,” he allows. “It took awhile to gain equilibrium.”

Chef Mohammad Armali has headed the kitchen for the past 15 years — a professionally trained cook and a Palestinian, to boot, more at home with Cyprian flavors than many a mainland Greek. As Gus explains, his island’s cooking is “closer to the Middle East and North Africa, with dishes like tabouli, falafel, hummus and kibbe — my favorite street snack when I was growing up. And the spices are more Arabic. More cinnamon.”

So, while Christos’ best sellers — moussaka and pastitsio, the Greek equivalents of Minnesota hot dish — are familiar, they carry a subtle tweak of flavor. The kitchen’s spanakopita — spinach pie — is different, too, rolled individually in leaves of phyllo pastry and cooked to order rather than languishing on a steam table: “flaky, crisp and piping hot,” Gus promises. “And, unlike many restaurants, we make our hummus fresh every day,” he adds.

“Lamb is our specialty” — choose shank, chops or kebabs. Yet he delights in telling the tale of half a dozen customers who’ve been coming in for 20 years. “They always have the kotopoulo — roast chicken — and won’t order anything else.”

The Parpases recently revisited Cyprus to help celebrate a nephew’s wedding. “They stick to tradition,” he says. “And you don’t order from a menu, it just appears: first mezzes — three or four kinds of olives and cheeses — then salads. Then vegetables. Next, seafood, maybe calamari. Lamb. Then you push back the tables, turn on the music and sing and dance.

“Cyprian wines are getting a little more play now — even here, people come in and want to drink it,” he says. “I discovered a favorite when I was back — Ayios [Saint] Ounofrios, a big, full-bodied red that I was able to add to our list.”

He’s adding venues, too. In 1996 a second Christos opened in downtown St. Paul (and is already booked out for the Republican Convention); in October, he launched a Minnetonka site. “You have to change, to keep ahead,” he ardently believes.

Yet one thing remains constant: It’s called meraclis. Gus translates: “That means to be very passionate, very particular. Not cut corners. No compromises.”

2632 Nicollet Ave.