Whenever anyone asks me if cabbies have tried to swindle me on the taxi adventures, I tell them yes, it’s happened a handful of times – but far more common are the cabbies who go out of their way to take me to good places to eat that won’t drive up the fare. José Pego took that kindness a step further. So when one of my food writing idols recently named Opa!, the souvlaki place José recommended, one of the best old-school spots for cheap eats in New York, I thought it was a good excuse to share this story one more time.
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 veered 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.”
Opa!, he assured me, had good shish kebab (a.k.a. souvlaki). Plus, he’s been going there since he was younger than me, and the place has “been there a hundred years.” (The restaurant celebrated its 45th anniversary in 2014).
When I got ready to pay him, the cabby told me to put away my money. “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.
At lunchtime on a Thursday, I was the only customer at Opa!, and the dining room smelled like someone had just mopped the floor with 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.
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 feta – 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), squeezing my shoulder and saying something to me in Greek before she beelined it to the back room and started shouting at a man who was repairing the boiler.
“Come downstairs,” said the boiler man, “and let me show you what the problem is.”
“I am not going downstairs,” said Pattie. “Why are we talking? Just fix it.”
28-44 31st St. – Astoria (Queens)
Appetizers $4-$14.75; Mains $4.50-$19.95
Credit cards accepted ($20 minimum)
Free delivery, 12pm-11pm ($10 minimum)