Long known as a Greek neighborhood, Astoria is now in fact so much more, and the blend of ethnicities on its streets — from Balkan to Brazilian — is mirrored in countless excellent food stores. If you're looking for a specialty ingredient, there's a good chance you can find it here, perhaps even with a recipe told off-hand by the counter help who bags the goods. The biggest and best places are on or around 30th Avenue, but a couple of smaller specialists are worth seeking out in other corners of the neighborhood.
If you go to only one grocery store in Astoria, make it the Trade Fair (30-12 30th Ave, Astoria, NY, 718-728-9484). A veritable culinary UN, it has expanded from its core customer base of Middle Eastern Muslims (halal goat meat greets you at the entrance) to cater to every Astoria resident with taste buds that long for home. The narrow aisles have space dedicated to every variety of Indian lentil, Brazilian açai in solid and liquid form, Mexican chiles, frozen Egyptian molokhiya, Jamaican Pickapeppa sauce, and more.
Its produce isn't always the freshest, but that's made up for in variety — there are some herbs and fresh greens here that I can't even identify. It's also my source for good chewy sourdough bread: small Portuguese loaves in the Lucite bins in the first bakery section you reach.
But be warned — some Astorians call this place the Trade Scare due to its oppressively narrow aisles, frequent shopping-cart gridlock, and claustrophobic produce section. And because the place is organized by source country of food (beyond the four core aisles, which have a more standard American grocery-store logic) rather than a type of food, finding anything specific can be tough. The best time to visit is the middle of the night (the place is open 24 hours) when you can browse at leisure.
Like the Trade Fair, Euro Market (30-42 31st St, Astoria, NY, 718-545-5569), which is just around the corner, is organized roughly by country of origin — and, apparently, every country in the Balkan-Mediterranean nexus makes about 45 kinds of fruit preserves. Euro Market has no produce section, but for condiments and other dry goods, its selection is unbeatable. I've scored some amazing Dalmatian cherry syrup here, as well as Greek pasta with great texture, and, more unexpected, Spanish paprika and sherry vinegar.
There's even a section of British items — like Ribena and Heinz baked beans.
The Euro Market also complements the Trade Fair nicely in that its deli department doesn't skimp on the pork. The Schaller & Weber double-smoked slab bacon is great. And the cold case holds an impressive selection of imported beers.
Hidalgo Mexican Food Products
If you're cooking anything Mexican, head to Hidalgo (30-11 29th St, Astoria, NY, 718-274-6936). Here's where you can get succulent fresh verdolaga (purslane), epazote, and other greens, as well as inexpensive vanilla, tropical flavors of Tang drink mix, and freshly rendered lard with a nice smoky flavor.
But you might not wind up cooking at all if you yield to temptation at the snack counter, where you can load up on tamales, quesadillas, and tortas. On the other hand, this might just give you more energy — and ideas — for shopping.
An Italian purveyor just below the Ditmars subway stop, Rosario's (22-55 31st St, Astoria, NY, 718-728-2920) also sells a few snacks. Order a slice of the best pizza in the neighborhood, and it'll be heating up while you browse the low, orderly displays of imported olive-oil-packed tuna, Italian cookies, and even cooking equipment. The deli case includes great cheeses, pancetta, and European-style butter. Wash down your pizza — perfectly light, crispy crust with a light cheese topping and a garlicky sauce — with one of the myriad Italian sodas.
With its nice lighting and orderly layout, Rosario's Deli is probably the closest place in Astoria to a standard "gourmet" store — and its extensive stock of delicacies (even the occasional shipment of super-creamy burrata mozzarella) means fewer trips to Manhattan.
The Japanese community in Astoria is a small one — mainly young people who've moved to New York to work and study — but it's substantial enough that Family Market (29-15 Broadway, Astoria, NY, 718-956-7925), a branch of a Japanese chain, opened in 2005. Astoria is short on Asian ingredients in general, so this place fills a major niche, with Pocky galore and Royal Milk Tea, of course, but also burdock root and a few other produce staples, oodles of noodles, and every kind of seaweed you could need.
One corner has a stash of Japanese DVDs, and another has household products and cosmetics.