Astoria Seafood occupies a piece of corner real estate at 33rd St and 37th Ave. The block, despite being right off of the 36th Ave thoroughfare and the N train line, is so lowly lit that I didn’t know we were there until our hosts and dear friends, Romon and Saya, announced our arrival. This low profile storefront, surrounded by closed shops secured by heavy scalloped metal grates, never would have beckoned me inside had I been in Astoria on my own in the vicious cold of January. I might not have even known it was a restaurant. That changed when we opened the door; tentacles of heat and noise spiraled around us, and we were engulfed in the scent of lemony charred ocean.
Despite it’s somewhat dilapidated appearance, this combination restaurant and fish market where you personally hand-pick your selections is a seafood lover’s fantasy. There was a lot to look at when we stepped inside, but my eyes were drawn to plate of peachy shrimp with perfect grill marks that had just been dropped on the table closest to the front door. If that plate was any indication of what was to come, this meal was going to be good.
Like so many trips to Queens, we felt as if we had been transported to another country, and we watched as Romon & Saya greeted the owners (a Greek family that has been running the place just the same for years) with hugs and smiles. Saya took my hand and led me through the throng of waiting customers to the back of the restaurant, which was lined with trays of ice heaped with over 20 kinds of seafood (both wild caught and farm raised). She handed me two oversized plastic bags and pointed at the sardines and the squid and the scallops while I looked on in wonder. Only in Chinatown can you get this close to your seafood, and even then you don’t bag it yourself.
I had been dreaming of octopus all week, but to my disappointment they were out by the time we arrived for one of the last seatings of this bustling Saturday night. I quickly got over it: there was a wonderland of extremely fresh whole fish and cleaned shellfish: mussels, squid, scallops, shrimp, porgies, sardines, smelt, mackerel, monkfish, lobster tails, grouper, branzino, flounder, and a bunch of other fish I had never tried.
Once you’ve pick your fish (or in our case, many fishes) you bring it to one of the smiling chubby faced counter guys who will do his best to stifle a laugh when you ask him if you can get the monkfish pan roasted (upon further investigation, it appeared that there was not suitable pan for said roasting in the whole place). If you decide to have them cook your fish (and you should) they will tell you there are a few options, but they recommend two: flour dredged and then fried until perfectly crunchy and intoxicatingly fragrant with Greek Oregano, or slathered and grilled with a magical concoction of extra virgin olive oil, lemon juice, garlic, salt, and pepper. After they weigh your selections and illegibly hand write your bill in thick black marker, you will wait for a table, which will give you the perfect opportunity to figure out how the gears in this machine of a restaurant works.
There are no frills here, and there don’t need to be. You are seated at a sturdy and worn table when one opens, and each round of seafood is delivered to you as it is pulled off of the grill or plucked from the fryer. There is no though of presentation or garnish; some of your deep fried items will come with a side of house made tartar sauce (I think they add extra pickle juice, which makes it acidic and delicious!) or lemon wedges if they remember to toss them on your plate as it is being passed over the low counter wall to the only waitress in the whole place. The restaurant is worn, like the spine of your favorite novel or the soles of your favorite boots. The paint is old and flaking, the bathroom, though recently remodeled, is not clean, and there are chipped tiles everywhere. But you don’t go to Astoria Seafood for their presentation, you go for exceedingly fresh and extremely affordable seafood. Even if seafood is not your favorite thing, the meal you will have at Astoria Seafood will be so glorious and beautiful in its simplicity that it is not to be missed. And once you see your bill, you will return repeatedly.
After you are seated they will supply you with the basics: plastic forks and knives, flimsy transparent cups, napkins. Because Astoria Seafood is BYOB we brought (lots of) wine with us. If you ask enough, you can even get a beat up bucket of ice to chill your beverages and a corkscrew to open them. Once you’re uncorked your first bottle you may be approached with a request, as we were, from your waitress to share whatever you have been chilling in the aforementioned bucket before your first plate even makes it to the table. Her arm will be outstretched and she will be gripping one of those flimsy cups, and you will want to oblige immediately. She is the only woman working and the night is drawing to a close. You can only imagine how refreshing small sips of cold alcohol will be for her. And why not? By the time you are smushed into your seats and you have bantered with the owners and gotten recommendations from the fish mongers in the back, everyone feels like family.
In an effort to accommodate my dietary restrictions, my dining companions graciously complied with my request to grill almost everything we brought to the counter. Because everything on the grill is brushed with the same amazing olive oil lemon juice garlic mix, there are notes of acid and sweetness that meld with the smokiness and highlight the unique flavor and texture of each type of seafood. It does not mask or overpower, but rather boosts and emphasizes what each should taste like. The scallops had a deep sweetness, the squid was supremely tender and mild, the monkfish was juicy, meaty and smokey, and the lobster tails were luscious and tasted of the sea. If you insist, you can get a Greek salad or a side of lemony potatoes and finish of the meal with Baklava (we got all and really enjoyed them), but nothing can take the spotlight off of the fish.
Time passes slowly here, and as you work your way through bottles of wine, piles of fish, and epic conversation with close friends, the traditional Greek music will get louder to provide the soundtrack for the Opa! Dance Line that materialized and is snaking its way around the restaurant. The chefs and counters guys will clap rhythmically while they catapult cheap white napkins high into the dining room and they fall to the floor like oversized confetti. Though you can’t quite tell why this impromptu celebration started, you are content in your ignorance because it is amazing to watch, chew, and sip, happy that you made the trip to Astoria, and that you got one of the last tables of the night.