Astoria’s Food Trucks: The Backbone of Queens Cuisine
The Backbone of Queens Cuisine
Everyone knows that Astoria is a food town. With Zagat-rated restaurants around the corner from each other, the plethora of ethnic eats, from Greek to Thai to Brazilian, lounges and brunch spots, not to mention coffee shops and bakeries turned quick bites, you could eat your entire life out in Astoria. And if traditional sit-down restaurants were not enough, there has been a long tradition of fabulous food trucks, adding another level to the rich ecology of eating in this town. In this feature, we set out to uncover the food trucks, both established and new, that give Astoria just another reason to eat.
It makes sense that food trucks came to the rescue during the pandemic as many traditional indoor restaurants closed their doors. It provided residents a new avenue to explore in terms of food. Surely, you have visited some of these spots on this list, and of course, it is not comprehensive, but a starting point to get your food truck on.
Corner of 31st St. and 23rd Ave.
There’s a reason the lines to grab a souvlaki are long at Christos’. Christos Boutris started out as a waiter in Stamatis restaurant nearby, but three kids in private school pushed him to taking the entrepreneurial plunge to open his own souvlaki truck. For seven years he’s been a faithful supplier of juicy chunks of pork, marinated with the lemony-oregano sauce that makes his souvlaki a hit. Business picked up so much that for the last two years, a full-time employee works alongside him. “You have to love what you do,” Christos says.
“If you don’t like it, the food does not come out right. And, you gotta have quality meat.” Christos’s customers come from other boroughs like Brooklyn and the Bronx to savor his souvlaki on a stick and full gyro sandwiches. He parks a line of chairs along the side of the bank to relieve their wait while they talk politics. “The meat is so good,” chimes in the crossing guard on his lunch break from PS 122. “He is also a good man,” a fellow Greek shouts from the back. For $3 a stick, you can just have one as a snack on your way to the subway.
King of Falafel
Corner of Ditmars Blvd. and 31st St.
Esam Mohammed and Fares Zadiya have been serving up falafel since 2002. They started as cab drivers who got fed up with the industry and decided to start a push cart serving the homemade dishes they grew up with in their native home of Palestine. Back then, there were few falafel spots on the street. In time, they became a household name, especially after winning the coveted Vendy award in 2010. Since then, King Falafel has handed out thousands of free samples of falafel to passerby. They have a loyal following including a young lady named Ashley who would ask for the same sandwich every day – they eventually named the sandwich after her. Five years ago, with the bonanza of the truck and their recognizable stage presence, they opened a restaurant of the same name on Broadway.
“In order for the food to come out right,” Esam confesses, “you have to love what you do.” That and the right recipe from Mom who served as the covert consultant for the project. For those who love thick, mayo-type sauces and fill-your-gut portions, King Falafel will reign a long while more.
Steinway St. and 25th Ave.
While there are plenty of halal food trucks that line the strip known as Little Egypt, nothing beats the portions at this stand. A $12 kefta kabob plate comes with two oversized kabobs on a generous bed of long grain rice, salad, and two side servings of a vegetable and a soup, and don’t forget the spongy bread. The quantity of food stretches this platter out for two stomachs or two days for one. The soup sides vary day to day; sometimes you will get okra in tomato sauce, other times pinto bean soup, other times green beans. While this truck spot started serving its spicy wares seven years ago, the owners who hail from Ramallah, Palestine, have been in the food business for over 25 years, having started with restaurants in Amman, Jordan, and then in the US with seven stores in Jackson Heights.
A pioneering uncle, the original owner, passed the operations to his nephews, Mohamed, Mohanad, and Ahmad. Ahmad explained the reason for their success: “We use authentic spices, the food is always fresh and clean; we do the food in your eyes,” as he pulls open a shelf under the cart where skewers of chicken are marinating in a deep, red-brown sauce spiked with a mix of peppers. He jokes that while the majority of halal trucks are run by Egyptians, “Everyone knows they don’t know how to cook; Palestinians are behind all the good ones.” He brags that he has customers that come not only from the five boroughs but from other states, including Florida and Pennsylvania.
1st location: off Steinway St. and 28th Ave.
2nd location: Steinway between Broadway and 36th Ave.
While most people believe food trucks to be owned by one person, the Mexican food trucks known as El Tri are run as a franchise by four brothers from Ecuador. Carlos Humala and his brothers own five trucks, two in Astoria. The spot on Steinway has sold your familiar Mexican fare, enchiladas, burritos, and not so familiar, quesadilla de birra and Alambre, for 2 ½ years from the street. According to Carlos, while COVID has put a dent in the pockets of many in the food business, his truck has experienced an uptick; he has even started delivering orders through Seamless. “People prefer the informality of the street,” he says.
Corner of Steinway and 36th Ave.
“Keep Calm and Eat Halal.” That’s the slogan pasted against Big Blue2, the affectionately named truck otherwise known as Mahmoud’s Corner. (His other truck spot is on Northern Blvd. and 53rd Woodside). While it serves the savory shawarma and chicken platters oozing with white sauce, what sets it apart is the falafel sandwich. Mahmoud hailing from Cairo does not skimp; not only is his falafel greener and less dry than others, he packs in fried eggplants and French fries into his pita sandwich smothered with tahini sauce and just the right mix of spices. “It’s not salty, but seasoned just right,” said Elizabeth Rodriquez, a first-time customer from the Bronx engrossed in her sandwich. He has been a mainstay for lunch for the Kaufman Astoria Studio crews since 1983. When even the food trucks had to close during the height of the pandemic, he stayed loyal to his customers by signing up on GrubHub, UberEats, and Seamless, bringing the food to them. “Hey thanks for all those plates when times were hard,” Anansi Kb writes on their Facebook page.
31st St. and Ditmars Blvd.
You can’t miss this newcomer to the neighborhood—a truck covered in green astro turf. “We wanted to do something different,” explains Ahmad Hafez, himself a native Astorian. “We wanted people to stop and look at us. We wanted to get a grass wrap to fit in with our menu, but it couldn’t be done, so I did it myself.” Hafez and his partner, Amir Saad realized that for vegans and vegetarians, food trucks were out of the question. Back home in Egypt, Ahmad and Amir loved the simple but healthy street food popular with working-class people who could not afford to cook with meat. As meat is very expensive, 80% of the population in Egypt is vegan/vegetarian. So, the idea was born: why not introduce Egyptian food for the masses to a higher-class clientele? What’s important for simple and higher-class people alike is good health, fresh food and greens.
The menu needs a bit of study as the dishes might not be familiar to an American audience. Its signature dish is Koshary, the national dish of Egypt, made with a bed of rice, lentils, vermicelli topped with fried onions and basted with a rich tomato sauce spiked with cumin and other subtleties. Taamia is falafel made with fava beans, not chick peas, and baladi is a type of salad. Ahmad and Amir chose to introduce their truck to Astoria because it did have a higher concentration of vegans and less competitors unlike the Lower East Side where over 30% of food establishments are vegan. Whatever you choose on the menu will be fresh and healthy, for those days you wanted to lay off the meat on the street.
Ditmars Blvd. and 35th St. – 33rd St.
This baby, only a month old, is the newest member to join the food on the street in Astoria. The truck itself, a $200K+ investment, is top of the line with shiny silver grills, flattops, four-burner stove with oven, four fridges, LED interactive screens for the menu, a built-in ATM and even a dedicated DJ from an Instagram playlist curated by the marketing manager whose riffs make you bust out dancing in the street while you wait for your chopped cheese sandwich. Chris Liz and partner Mike DeVito go way back having worked in a restaurant in Manhattan together. As friends and business partners, they are behind the menu at Queens Room, the café-turned-brunch spot a little bit up the road.
“We were always saying, ‘You know, we should start a food truck, we should start a food truck’ for seven years,” Chris explains. And then last year, a fairy godfather of an investor appeared, and voila! StreatKings was born. What sets their menu apart? “We bring the NYC classics together in one truck. You get world cuisine with a modern American twist,” Chris explains. Their menu is seasonal, so you will not get bored. The chopped cheese sandwich is very popular at the moment but Chris’ favorite is the Jerk Rib Sandwich.
Cnr. 31st. St and 31st Ave
Last on the list is the granddaddy of souvlaki trucks and what put Astoria Greek food on the map: King Souvlaki. Since 1979, the Tsampas family has prided themsleves on providing homestyle Greek staples using yiayia’s secret recipes for their garlicky tzatziki and the marinade that seeps into the luscious folds of their skewers. Antonis Tsampas, the third generation to work the truck, told me the history: uncle Lefteris Tsampas ran a push cart in the early 80s just selling sticks under the elevated tracks on 31st Street. But when he bequeathed it to his nephews, George and Kosta, who graduated to a truck that served sandwiches and then platters, the biz blew up. They added French fries drizzled with feta cheese, not frozen, but prepared on the spot and fried in olive oil, something other vendors could not do because of the cost. The long lines are a constant testament to the authenticity of the food. On weekends, it seems the truck with the flashing LED lights is always open, with three guys at the grill constantly hustling to get those orders in, even at three in the morning. The truck keeps hours from noon to 3am and at pre-COVID times, 5am.
“We try to keep it authentically Greek,” Antonis replies. “Customers wait on line for a while because we provide something better, something with quality. Yes, you have to wait on line for a bit, but once you get to the window, we get it quick.” In the beginning, Greeks in the area flocked to as it reminded them of home, but in time, the customer base grew. COVID actually helped draw customers because those left without their usual choices in food ventured to try it.
King Souvlaki has loyal subjects hailing from states as far away as Colorado and Florida. Many of the Greeks who have moved out of Astoria into the suburbs of the tri-State pay homage by picking up a platter or two when they drop in to do their shopping. King Souvlaki recently opened a third truck to serve its loyal subjects in the Ditmars area, as many complained it took over a half hour to drive to the 31st Avenue truck. “Many people doubt the quality of food you can get from a truck,” Antonis explains, “but a truck can provide the same quality as a restaurant and even more. A restaurant, for example, is not allowed to have an open charcoal fire, but a truck can. Our meat is cooked on pure fire, charcoal fire that keeps the flavor. I prefer quality over quantity.”