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Souvlaki and a Second Strike of Lightning

After five blocks in motion and 15 minutes of curbside conversation, José Pego finally decided I’d better try the lamb souvlaki at Opa!

The cabbie – who emigrated to New York as a teenager, dropped out of NYU and has been driving a taxi for 32 years – was born in Galicia, Spain. He travels with a scallop shell – the symbol of pilgrims on the Camino de Santiago – on the dashboard and a shortwave radio tuned to Primera Liga soccer games. On his days off, he makes wine.

When I asked him if there was any place in New York that serves the kind of seafood that Galicia is famous for, he told me “no.”

“You can’t get good seafood in a restaurant here. Where I’m from, the fish are pulled straight from the Atlantic. They’re still wiggling when we’re ready to cook them.”

When he’s craving clams or scallops or octopus or lobster, he goes to Marino & Sons Grand Fish Market – or to the Chinese supermarkets on Kissena Blvd. in Flushing. Then his wife cooks the seafood at home.

“When we want to splurge a little, we buy two lobsters and a pound of shrimp with the heads on. Americans don’t like to see the shrimp with the heads,” he said, “We clean the shrimp, put the heads in water with garlic, olive oil, a bay leaf, and saffron and make a broth for rice. The rice Italians use for risotto. When the rice has about 10 or 15 minutes to go, we split the lobsters and put them on top, cover it, and it’s done.”

The subway roared overhead and cars honked and swerved around us as José dictated the recipe to me. Was he sure that his house was the only place I could find a dish like this?

“Look, I could drive you around for a whole day and go down a list of restaurants. It’s never-ending. There’s so much in New York – not even people who are born here know it all.”

But, José assured me, Opa! had good shish kebab (i.e. souvlaki). Plus, he’d been going there since he was younger than me, and the place had “been there a hundred years.” (I later learned that the restaurant celebrated its 40th anniversary this year).

When I finally agreed to give the souvlaki a go and tried to pay José, he wouldn’t take my money: “You have to know when what you have is enough. When you keep acquiring more and more things, you forget what you had in the first place. It gets pushed into a corner. You know when you have what you need.”

I fought back tears. Long ago, on a taxi adventure in Buenos Aires, another cabbie had refused to take my money when I’d hailed him across the street from one of his favorite steak houses. Whenever anyone asked me if taxi drivers tried to take advantage of the funkiness of my food quests, I told them about the taxista who’d led me to Los Chanchitos. I never dreamed that I’d meet another cabbie – especially a New York cabbie – who would do the same thing.

José dismissed my disbelief, “I can see you’re trying to make it, mujer, and that you work very hard. Just don’t forget to make space for own personal happiness. That’s what really matters.”

Spoken like a true Spaniard. I waved goodbye to the wise cabbie, crossed the street to Opa!, rushed past the scary statue of the Greek chef outside, and entered an empty restaurant that smelled like bleach.

Silk plants flanked a Christmas clock. Strange knick-knacks sat atop a glass pastry case above a signed photo of Hillary Clinton and a list of rules for a happy marriage.

I ordered a lamb souvlaki platter (with French fries, flatbread and salad) and listened to the cook sing along to Greek folk songs while I waited for my lunch.

A bottle-blond waitress spoke to me in Greek and switched to English when she saw the stupefied look in my eyes as she laid my lamb in front of me.

The juice was still running off the souvlaki as I squeezed lemon over it. I forgot the smell of bleach, the wacky knickknacks and the Christmas clock when I took my first bite.

The folk-singing cook had rubbed the lamb with oregano, rosemary, and black pepper and grilled it to tender. When I wrapped it in flat bread and smeared it with garlic-powered tzatziki, I had a spectacular sandwich. The salad – with cucumber, tomato, onion, romaine lettuce and a mountain of in-your-face feta cheese – was a great side. I left the soggy fries alone.

Meanwhile, Opa! co-owner Pattie walked in (I recognized her from the photo next to the cash register). She spoke to me in Greek, squeezed my shoulder, beelined it to the back room and started shouting at a man who was trying to repair the boiler. (Boiler man: “Come downstairs and let me show you what the problem is.” Pattie: “I am not going downstairs. Why are we talking? Just fix it.“)

Three people popped in to pick up takeout orders as I finished my souvlaki. I was relieved. My lunch was tasty – maybe even delicious – and I felt like the restaurant deserved to be busier, bursting boiler and all.

Maybe I would’ve left with a better taste in my mouth if it hadn’t cost $15.25. (Yes, it was a good platter of food, but when you know that guys like Muhamed Rahman make fabulous – though very differently spiced – lamb platters for half the price, $15.25 is a little hard to swallow. To be fair, though, the meat at Opa! is definitely a better cut, and good lamb doesn’t come cheap).

I walked home breathing garlic, fantasizing about José’s lobster and saffron risotto, knowing that the cabbie had given me much more than a free ride, a good recipe, and a solid souvlaki recommendation. He’d shown me a glimpse of Buenos Aires in New York – and gifted me with a moment of border-bashing kindness that I’ll be carrying around for quite a while.

Opa! Souvlaki
28-44 31st St. – Astoria (Queens)
Tel. 718-728-3638
Appetizers $4-$14.75; Mains $4.50-$19.95
Credit cards accepted ($20 minimum)
Free delivery, 12pm-11pm ($10 minimum)

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  1. Hi,

    Found you through TastingTableNYC this morning and haven’t left since, haha. Quick question, any chance you still have Jose’s risotto recipe and are willing to part with it?

    Thanks for everything else!

    • Hi Salem – I totally believe in sharing recipes, but unfortunately Jose didn’t get any more specific than what I wrote in the post. Next time, I’ll be sure to dig deeper. Thanks for reading!

  2. Hmm, in that case I’m gonna guess at a recipe…

    1 lb shrimp, cut off their heads and boil with about a quart of water and what he said above… make a traditional risotto and put in the saffron w/ the white wine… use the shrimp broth… i would say steam the lobster ahead of time coz i’m not good enough to steam anything w/ risotto, haha…

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