Q&A: Suzanne Yacka, Astoria Foodie, Dishes on How to Become a Go-To Neighborhood Eatery Expert
Becoming an authority on the latest New York eateries is for the most part left to food professionals.But if you're a foodie who loves to serve tips on local hot spots, word of mouth can work just as well. Meet Suzanne Yacka, a food enthusiast in Astoria who has become an authority in her own right via Twitter, recommending her favorite neighborhood restaurants to almost 1,500 followers. Although Yacka is not originally from Astoria, she can name just about every eatery in the northwestern corner of Queens.
Are you from Astoria originally? I moved to Astoria about two and a half years ago. I'm originally from central New Jersey and lived for a short while in Brooklyn and Manhattan, but after spending time in Astoria, I knew I had found the place I wanted to stay.
What is your first memory in which you recall being interested in food and the art of going out to eat? I grew up in a food-obsessed household; however, no one had the time or inclination to cook, so we ate out at restaurants nearly every day. Since I'm from Jersey, most of those restaurants were diners along highways, but I was there with my family, my mom and my dad, and my twin brother, Doug, that was our version of a traditional family meal, so I fell in love with it.
And which came first, your love of Astoria or its eclectic food selection? For me, a love of Astoria and its vast food selection are inextricably linked. I remember first walking through the neighborhood and being astonished that families were growing fig trees and table grapes in their front yards. Months later, I had the most amazing fig tart at Astor Bake Shop, lovingly made with figs from a neighbor's yard. I remember wolfing down salted beef tacos from El Rey Del Taco Truck in Athens Square Park, listening to free Greek music concerts, watching three generations of folks getting up to dance. There's an openness and abundance to Astoria, I think, that is expressed in the neighborhood's food, but has more to do with people and how we share the things that matter most to us with others.
What is it about Astoria that stands out more to you than any other borough? Astoria's tremendous diversity, and the great diversity of Queens at large, sets it apart from other places, even in New York City. But more to the point, Astoria is a neighborhood that has offered resistance to the purging of its people, traditions, and history in favor of what's trendy and new. Astoria is changing rapidly, however, and while change is not inherently a bad thing, I believe it's best when it happens in close relationship to the rich context of the history of a place. This is the kind of thoughtful, intentional change I hope to see in Astoria, and what I try to support through my writing.
What is the most common question you're asked? I talk with other food-obsessed Astorians mostly via Twitter, and people frequently ask me where they should take their friends and loved ones out to eat in the neighborhood. Questions like, "My parents are visiting, it's my anniversary, my sister is here from out of town, my best friend is visiting and loves a certain type food, where should we go?" Food is such an integral part of the time we share with the people we love, so to be asked to participate in those discussions with my neighbors is truly an honor. It also reminds me of my own family who, for the record, insist on having the scallops at Taverna Kyclades every time they visit me in Astoria.
What's your favorite eatery? I'm a deeply sentimental person, so my favorite places are the ones I went to with my girlfriend when we were first dating. She moved to Astoria a year before I did, and she's the true catalyst and inspiration for my exploration of the neighborhood and food-related discoveries. Very early on, we fell for 2 a.m. falafel sandwiches at Jerusalem Pita (a/k/a Pita Hot); cozy, seasonal Italian dinners at Vesta; and Greek feasts at Gregory's 26 Corner Taverna, which, by the way, I was overjoyed to see that Robert Sietsema reviewed for Fork in the Road late last year. I would sing that restaurant's praises from every rooftop in Astoria.
Do you have any suggestions for people looking to become food experts in their neighborhood? The best way to learn about food in your neighborhood is just to try new things. If there's a place on your block that looks interesting and offers a type of cuisine you haven't tried before, by all means stop in! Also, talk to your neighbors about food. Whether it is someone who has lived there all their life, or someone new to the neighborhood, everyone has suggestions and discoveries to share. Finally, check out if folks are blogging or writing about food in your neighborhood and engage with them online -- which is really just another way of talking to your neighbors. The idea of being a neighborhood food "expert" feels hopelessly exclusive to me. One becomes well versed in the food of their neighborhood if they are open to trying new things and engaging in a generous, friendly, sociable dialogue with their neighbors about what to eat.
If you're a foodie but on a budget, what would you suggest people do in order to explore the best that their neighborhood has to offer? We are lucky in Astoria. There are so many places to eat where the food is both inexpensive and absolutely delicious. Generally, if you are a food lover on a budget, I would suggest checking out places that do a thriving takeout and delivery (versus sit-down) business. In Astoria, specifically, these are places like BZ Grill, Duzan, Pão de Queijo, and so many others. I would also suggest checking out any stands that are sizzling by the side of the road. One of my favorite places to eat in Astoria is King of Falafel and Shawarma, a wildly popular, incredibly affordable food cart that makes the best chicken and rice I have ever tasted.
What's the one misconception about dining in Astoria? Outside of Queens, Astoria is known almost entirely for its Greek food. While the neighborhood has certainly earned that reputation, along with phenomenal Greek food, Astoria has amazing Middle Eastern, North African, South American, pan-Mediterranean, Balkan food, and more. Try everything.
Any secrets you'd like to spill about eating in Astoria that people must know? There are tons of new places opening in Astoria these days, however, I would love to encourage people to also visit restaurants that have been in the neighborhood for over five, 15, or even 25 years. I promise that you will be richly rewarded!
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