The Souvlaki King of Astoria is not just a cart that’s peddling food. It’s very much a vital part of Astoria’s collective and Greek culture and, in all seriousness, can, without pretension, wear the mantle of king.
Family owned and operated to this day, it’s been around since 1979. The current owners, brothers George and Costas Tsampas, took over from their uncle in 1990. Their sons, the two young guys at the cart, now assist in operations.
The older gentleman in the tan is also family. He usually hangs out at the seating area, where tables and chairs are set up. You hardly ever hear, “for here or to go” in the street food realm. You can also call an order in ahead.
A small, dedicated menu, like the one at Soulvaki King is always a good sign. You can get chicken or souvlaki (lamb) on a pita, on a platter or just on the skewer, and everything comes with fries. I went with soulvaki on a pita.
These fries are real. Very real. No bulk sized frozen sticks dumped into gross canola or vegetable oil here. These fries are hand cut and cooked in extra virgin olive oil imported from Greece. I never really gave fries much thought, even at a Belgian-style fry place like Pomme Frites on 2nd Avenue, where you’re encouraged to dump any of 35 different sauces on top. Here, just a light dusting of salt is all they really need. Maybe it’s the oil that makes all the difference, but these taste simple and clean.
The meat is cooked over a real charcoal grill. Anyone can do this, but here is where the skill of Souvlaki King becomes brightly apparent.
There’s a crispiness on the outside of the pieces of lamb, but unlike with other souvlaki carts (won’t name names, but one in particular has guys in Tiger Schulmann Karate outfits always lurking around it), this meat is so juicy, there’s enough to soak into the lightly grilled pita before you take the first bite. Just by flavor alone, you can tell that the meat itself is incredibly fresh. This is the way lamb needs to be charred. Even more phenomenal is that there is little to no spice on it. Just cucumber, tomato, onion and tzatziki.
With tzatziki, I don’t think there should be a uniform consistency for all dishes. As much as I very much enjoy Greek supermarket Titan Foods’ style of tzatziki (being super thick, super garlicky, with coarse bits of onion and cucumber), there’s no way I could see that fitting in here. Despite being thinner, Souvlaki King’s tzatziki still manages to hold onto that rich cream of Greek yogurt and the garlic is much more subtle. What’s brilliant is that it too soaks into the pita along with the lamb juices, and yet the whole sandwich holds up. It makes the pita more than simply the bread which holds the stuff inside.
Greek food is a stern, but not severe, cuisine. If personified, I could see it being a Hemingway-papa type. The food at Souvlaki King of Astoria is nothing short of a display of mastery in its methods of preparation, successfully passed down. There’s no secret spice mix, no gimmicks, no flash or fusion. Just quality ingredients and a bold confidence in their natural flavors.
When you bite into the sandwich as a whole, the great balance of all the flavors and textures at once brings about that uncommon feeling of fulfillment, the feeling that you’ve put something good and nourishing into your body. One of the best souvlakis I’ve ever eaten.
You can find the Souvlaki King of Astoria cart on 31st Street and 31st Avenue. Take the N/Q to 30th Ave. For more information, please call the cart at (917) 416-1189.
Get in touch with the author @mdoriancorbin.