Fantastic No-Frills Fish at ASTORIA SEAFOOD
Here’s a hot tip on a spectacular hole in the wall that you won’t find in the tour guides. ASTORIA SEAFOOD is not the sort of spot that beckons you as you walk by. In fact, if you didn’t know any better, you would probably never even consider going in. Luckily, I parked my car far away from set one day and happened to poke my head into this place around lunchtime as I walked through the no man’s land where Astoria and Long Island City converge. Inside, under an anchor shaped HVAC duct painted with sea life, lies a fish market/Greek-style restaurant hybrid where the sky’s the limit when it comes to the fishes of your wishes.
Don’t expect to get it completely right the first time you walk into this place. There is definitely a learning curve and a great deal to navigate through the garlicky smoky haze of the grill under the bright flourescent lights. Upon entry, one might be inclined to get in line and order one of the items from the steam table, offering varieties of prepared fish, along with seafood infused pastas, rice dishes and salads. While this might be fine if you are in a hurry, you have come here to set sail upon these waters in search of fresh fish prepared the way you want it, so bypass the counter at first and head to the fish market in back, where you can select from a wide variety of reasonably priced whole fish, fillets, shrimp, scallops, oysters, clams clams, and more.
At this point, after walking through the restaurant to get to the fish, you may be inspired by what you see others eating, but you are left only to your imagination and inspiration, as there are no menus and very little guidance available. If you are lucky, a server may notice you, and offer to set you up at a table and help you out, by bagging the fish of your choice, handing it over to the fishmonger to clean, and then delivering it to the cashier with instructions per your request. It is advisable to meet your fish at the cashier at this point to reiterate the directions for preparation, and make sure that your fish is not getting mixed up with the other orders that are piling up around him. This is also a good time to grab a canned or bottled beverage from behind the register, or if you ask your server nicely, he or she might bring you one.
Most importantly, now is the time to set yourself up with a Greek salad. There is one guy who just makes the Greek salads all day long. You can select ingredients to your liking or just tell him to give you everything for some crispy, delicious, lemony greens mixed up in a bowl with crunchy peppers, red onion, black olives, and a heaping handful of crumbled feta. For $7, this salad can feed up to four people as a precursor to the meal. This is an essential part of the ASTORIA SEAFOOD experience. If they didn’t have any fish at all, I would consider coming here just for the Greek salads. Grab that salad and go to your table where plastic utensils and a paper napkin await you.
These stuffed shrimp looked too good to pass up from the steam table as an accompaniment to the salad while waiting for our turn on the grill, and they were tasty, although a bit cold and overcooked. It would be highly preferable to throw some raw ones in a bag and ask for them grilled, and they will come to you piping hot and doused in a delicious drizzle of garlic, lemon and olive oil (as pictured below). You could also get your shrimp breaded and fried in a basket with fries, if you prefer. Or you can go large and order the giant head-on prawns if that’s your thing. One think I know is that ASTORIA SEAFOOD knows shrimp.
Truthfully, as mundane as it has become in our culinary vernacular, the fried calamari here is some of the freshest tasting, lightly breaded, crispy, salty, greasy delicious crustacean we’ve ever had anywhere. Just ask your server to grab a handful off the ice and have it fried up for you. Don’t be alarmed if he or she reaches for the inkier, purplish looking stuff rather that the pristine white thawed squid. Whatever it is, it is delicious and just go with it and don’t ask questions. The only reason there isn’t photographic evidence of the calamari is that it got devoured before the camera made it out.
When it comes to fish, you can have the fishmonger cut you a swordfish, salmon or halibut steak to your desired thickness, such as the one pictured above. There are also various fillets to choose from, such as salmon, grouper, cod, skate or monkfish to be grilled, broiled or steamed, perhaps with a side of rice or potatoes. And everything comes with garlic bread, so don’t miss out on that. The grill man is constantly splitting baguettes, slathering them in the same garlic butter that goes on the fish, and toasting them in the oven. Garlic bread flies around this place to the point that if you stick your hand out, you might just catch some.
One of the best things you can do at ASTORIA SEAFOOD is pick out a beautiful whole fish and have it grilled to perfection. The red snapper above had to weigh nearly three pounds, and it cost $35 and fed three. There are always plenty of Mediterranean fish to choose from such as branzino and orata as well as sea bass, cod, trout, sardines and more. There is also always the option of buying the fish raw and taking it home and cooking it yourself. Regardless, once you’ve had your fill, step up to the counter and ask how much you owe them. The guy behind the register will thumb through a pad of scrawled receipts and throw a round number at you that could not possibly have been arrived at through conventional mathematical means, and you will even have the option of paying by credit card if you so desire. Leave a gratuity on the table for the server if you have received any service, and you can also drop a tip in the jar for the fish monger, or the salad guy if you are so inclined.
The real fun of ASTORIA SEAFOOD is that you will inevitably walk away with the feeling that there is so much more to learn on each subsequent visit. There are some big urns on the counter opposite the grill, and Lord only knows what sort of delicious soups and chowders may be contained within. It appears that there are some tomato based seafood sauces that can be served over pasta as well, but I wouldn’t know how to order them. I would be curious to see what happened if you asked for “calamari marinara” for instance. It seems that they do clams casino, and they will shuck fresh oysters and clams and serve them up raw.
ASTORIA SEAFOOD is by no means the fanciest, or even the cleanest place that you’ve ever eaten a meal at, but it is a great value for very fresh fish, and it is undoubtedly a chaotic, exciting, uniquely New York experience for the adventurous fish lover who knows what he or she wants. This is not a place for the squeamish, the impatient, the fancy, the needy or those afraid of walking away with some serious garlic breath. Come at lunch time and squeeze among an international crowd of local workers and families speaking Greek, Spanish, Hindi and English. This is why we live and dine in New York City!
(ASTORIA SEAFOOD is located at 37-10 33rd Street in Astoria/Long Island City; 718-392-2680)