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The Astoria Ash Wednesday Fishing Expedition

20 Feb

Astoria Seafood

We got the email from Zio several days before we were to meet. That we were notified of his choice for our food group so far in advance was unusual for Zio. His normal procedure was to glean help from anyone he can and then, just a day or so before the assigned date, come up with a destination. So confident was he of his choice of Astoria Seafood that in his email to us he even did the research about the liquor status of the place.

“They don’t serve alcohol, but you can bring your own beer,” he wrote as if beer or something stronger was one of the criteria for our group. It wasn’t, but it was nice of him to think of what was truly important to us.

Eugene’s concern was more spiritual.  Eating meat, he explained, also by way of email, would be in conflict with his Ash Wednesday obligations. It was too late to reschedule to Fat Tuesday, and the next day was Valentine’s Day, so we stuck with the original Ash Wednesday date and assured Eugene that since we were eating at a place called Astoria Seafood, there should be no conflict.

To further assure Eugene, Zio dryly added:  “Wednesdays they serve tilapia from the Gowanus Canal.”

“Yeah, and don’t worry Eugene, it’s BYOA. Bring Your Own Ash,” Gerry quipped.

And so Eugene did—the ash in the middle of his forehead—its mark adding to his already shadowy complexion.

When I arrived, Zio was in the process of securing our table in the combination seafood market and restaurant. The place was bustling; maybe others were observing Ash Wednesday by confining their diet that evening to fish. I could hear Spanish, Greek, and Arabic spoken from the customers (mostly men) at the restaurant’s tables as Zio and I surveyed the offerings on ice.

Seafood restaurant/fish market

Seafood restaurant/fish market

A young man wearing a Yankees’ baseball cap came over.

“Hey, how are you? “ Zio said to him.

The man smiled and stared somewhat dumbfounded.

“You remember me?  From the last time I was here?” Zio asked hopefully.

“Oh yeah, sure I do,” the man, who said his name was Matt replied as if he actually meant it.

From then on, Matt served as our guide and host in the somewhat complicated maze that was Astoria Seafood.

Our fishing expedition guide.

The guide of our fishing expedition.

“You pick out what you want,” Zio tried to explain to me. “They weigh it and then you tell them how you want it cooked.”

It wasn’t as easy as it sounded mainly because it was almost impossible what fish to choose much less how to prepare it. Should we stick with a whole fish? Something filleted. Fried? Broiled? Grilled? Raw? And what about shellfish? Those oysters, wherever they were from, were tempting. There were just too many options to consider.

We had to go through the procedure with Gerry and Eugene, but not Mike from Yonkers, who we learned when Gerry arrived wasn’t coming and had no other excuse than that he just forgot that we were scheduled to meet. There was no word at all from Rick and after waiting about fifteen minutes, figured he was a no show as well. The next day he attributed his not being there to what he called a “brain fart,” thinking Ash Wednesday was the following week.

So there were just four of us and we tried to order accordingly. Zio decided on a large freshly caught fluke that he asked to have deep fried. I saw others at a table sharing a platter of scallops and shrimp that looked like it was prepared scampi style. I asked Matt if he could put together a total of two pounds of shrimp and scallops and make up a scampi for us. He assured me he could.

Fluke before

Fluke before

I also noticed that everyone eating at the tables were indulging in a salad served on a large platter and coated in a feta laced dressing. “We have to have one of those,” I told Zio.

“Oh we will,” he said with confidence.

“And what about a cup of fish soup,” I said hopefully.

Matt our server looked at me.

“Fish soup for all of us,” I said to him. No one argued.

The soup came out first, a light tomato broth overflowing with pieces of white fish.

“There’s a lot of fish in here,” Zio said to Matt.

Matt smiled at Zio, his new”old friend.”

“I made sure of it,” he said.

Fish soup

Fish soup

The salad came out next along with a platter of toasted French bread coated with olive oil. It tasted as good as it looked. The fried fluke, filleted and battered in a light coating of bread crumbs, followed. The fish was big enough to feed six, but we were just four. Not that there was a problem. We worked through it with ease.

Fluke after

Fluke after

From behind the counter, one of the chefs was calling to Eugene. It was very noisy in the place and he cupped a hand to his ear. “What?” Eugene mouthed back to him.

The chef called out something again and Eugene nodded.

“What’s he saying,” I asked Eugene.

“I have no idea,” Eugene said.

Another waiter came over. “He wants to know if you want the lemon potatoes.”

Lemon potatoes? How could we resist?

The potatoes quickly appeared, halves of skinless potatoes, tender and tinged with lemon.

Lemon potatoes

Lemon potatoes

The addictive crunchy bread had long since disappeared and when the shrimp and scampi arrived on a gargantuan platter swimming in garlicky oil also flavored with lemon, we knew we needed more bread to soak up the “juice.”

“I’m sure I said two pounds,” I told our group as we stared in disbelief at the quantity of crustaceans in front of us.

“You did. I was there.” Zio remarked as he speared a scallop and swirled it in the sauce.

Multiple pounds of shrimp and scallops prepared scampi style.

Multiple pounds of shrimp and scallops prepared scampi style.

The mercury level in our blood rising fast, we were nearing exhaustion. Despite our best efforts, the four of us just could not finish the scampi. In fact, there was enough left for a substantial snack.

Matt brought our tab. We were considerably over our usual budget of $20 per person. Eugene deciphered the scrawl on the tab.

“They charged us for almost four pounds of shrimp and scallops,” he said shaking his head.

“That’s not right,” I said. “I told him two pounds.”

And then we just shrugged it off. The food was very good. And we could justify going over budget because we were minus two of our members. With six in attendance we wouldn’t have had to order anything else and would have easily come close to our $20 allotment.

We had the remains of the scampi wrapped up.

“Take it,” Gerry said to Zio. “You deserve it for picking this place.”

Zio grabbed the bag. “Now I know what I can give the Colonel for Valentine’s Day,” he said. “Who needs chocolates when you can have day old shrimp and scallop scampi.”

Zios Valentine gift for the Colonel.

Zios Valentine gift for the Colonel.

Astoria Seafood
37-10 33rd Street

Baklava in the Bleachers

16 Oct

As I said in these pages about a month ago (New Year’s Penicillin), I’ve been spending a lot of time just off the 230th Street exit of the Major Deegan, sitting on crooked aluminum bleacher seats watching baseball on a small field. The field borders the Deegan and the hum of traffic is a constant.

The bleacher seats: no admission charge.

In between games or while waiting for the games to begin, I’ve become very familiar with the Kingsbridge neighborhood that surrounds the field.  A café con leche at Malecon Restaurant has become a weekly treat and as I reported here, I “discovered” a 50 year old Kosher deli named Loeser’s where the penicillin includes chicken broth, noodles, or maybe a matzoh ball.

More recently, as I waited for the games to begin, I happened on another place. Just a few paces from the 50th police precinct and across the street from the Nice Guys Car Wash, I found a small, shed of a diner called Christos Gyro & Souvlaki.

The souvlaki of Christos.

Christos, I learned, has been at its tiny location on Kingsbridge Road the past eight years—at least that was what the owner, Christopher, a.k.a Christos, said to me as he also proudly handed me a laminated Daily News article about his restaurant where that newspaper rated his gyro the best in the city.

The weather was changing. An Indian summer day was quickly turning into a brisk autumn one. I’d have to take the Daily News’ word on the gyro. I wanted something else. I didn’t need New Year’s penicillin, but the close Greek equivalent would do very well.

“You want the avgolemono?” Christos asked.

“Yes I do,” was my definitive response.

“Anything else?”

“Moussaka,” I said, not caring that I might miss the beginning of the game.

“Very good choice.”

The bowl of the yellow-tinged, lemon chicken soup was steaming. Spherical dots of orzo floated within along with slivers of chicken. The distinct citrus snap of lemon meshed magically with the hearty, comforting chicken broth.

I crumbled a few saltines into the bowl and slurped. It wasn’t long before the bowl was empty.

Christos’ avgolemono

Moussaka awaited, paired with a simple Greek salad, pita bread and a generous bowl of tzatziki. I dipped the pita into the creamy, garlicky yogurt…and then I double dipped.

The half inch of béchamel sauce on top of the ground beef and eggplant was airy, the filling scented with cinnamon. I alternated between bites of the moussaka and dips of the tzatziki until all was gone.

Moussaka, Greek salad, tzatziki

Christos came to clear my table. “You did good,” he said.

“I know,” I answered, happy to have made him proud.

As I waited to pay, I noticed a tray of baklava and remembered reading in the Daily News piece that Christos’ wife made them fresh daily. I pointed to it. Christos’ son was working the cashier—Christo’s was most certainly a family affair. “To go?”  he asked.

I nodded and took the bagged baklava back to the ball field. I devoured it watching baseball on the bleacher seats while like a continuous loop, the music of the Major Deegan played on and on.

Music to eat baklava by.

The Greek Uncle (R.I.P)

21 Dec

When Zio picked Uncle George’s in Astoria, the restaurant really didn’t qualify for our criteria. This was late 2003 and having been around since 1985, it was well known among the burgeoning foodie crowd. But we hadn’t done “Greek” yet and it was cheap, so we let Zio slide on the pick. As you’ll read below, that was our mistake.

Uncle George’s Greek Tavern
33-19 Broadway

Is Astoria now to Greek restaurants what Little Italy is to Italian restaurants? Are they just there to appease the tourist or wandering foodie; to present a pale imitation of what Greek-American or Italian-American cuisine was like 40 years ago. That’s what I was afraid of when Zio choose Uncle George’s as the next destination for our group of intrepid eaters. Uncle George’s had a reputation as one of those authentic Greek restaurants, but my sources had warned that the food had there had gone downhill. This was Zio’s choice, however, and it was not my place to interfere.

When I entered Uncle George’s, the fluorescent-bright interior looked much more like a dingy diner than a Greek tavern. This was a good sign, I thought. There were other good signs: men with bushy forearms reading newspapers with undecipherable, to me, Greek lettering, a bilingual menu in English and that same undecipherable Greek on the wall, a surly, casting-couch Greek waiter who scoffed at Gerry when he inquired about a glass of ouzo: “No ouzo here! Whattya think? This a bar?.”  Lamb head on the menu. I was encouraged. Maybe Zio picked Uncle George’s truly for the food and not just for the convenience; surely that it was only a couple of blocks from his Astoria love shack was not a factor at all.

After we finally all assembled and sipped retsina; bad Greek wine served ice cold out of an olive oil container, our brusque waiter took our orders. Of course most of the items we desired were not available. The waiter recited what was left and when one of our large, slightly deaf, contingent inquired again about something not on the menu, he became exasperated with us. Still, there were plenty of items to choose from—lamb head, sadly, was not one of them.



We started with the typical Greek dips; fish roe (taramaslata) yogurt, garlic and cucumber (tzatziki) and the very garlicky potato dip (skoradilia). All were very good and served with warm pita bread. Gerry tried the fried cheese and Rick was curious about the spinach pie, which was not anywhere near the equal of what I commonly ordered at Big Nick’s Burger Joint on the Upper West Side, not to be confused with Uncle Nick’s in Hell’s Kitchen, which also had a better spinach pie than Uncle George. I erred badly by choosing the baked macaroni and octopus. The macaroni, baked to a mushy consistency, was the antithesis of “al dente” and the octopus, canned and accompanied with an overdose of dill. Gerry had a similar unfortunate experience with his pastitio, the Greek version of baked ziti. Eugene fared better with the grilled whiting as did Rick with the barbecued baby lamb. Zio tried the lamb stew with spinach, which reminded me of one of the many common themes on meats, whether beef, pork or veal, that was the few dinner options at my college dormitory. Charlie’s roast leg of lamb was if nothing else, slow-cooked tender and highlighted by a large portion of lemon potatoes.

The food was certainly plentiful, but we’ll leave it at that. Zio had a “sheepish” look on his face as we left and it had nothing to do with our consumption of lamb. He shrugged. “They make good eggs,” he said. And to that we had no response.

No lamb head today!

Uncle George continues to thrive 24 hours a day in Astoria. It’s been “remodeled” since we visited in 2003, but the menu remains the same. Now, I think, the restaurant is more a guilty pleasure to its followers; like Wo Hop in Chinatown or Vincent’s Clam Bar in Little Italy. They are comforting reminders of the past that are knowingly not very good, but still irresistible for, if nothing else, their continued existence in an ever-changing food universe.

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