“What would you like me to make?”
Sebastian Royo, the executive chef of Astoriana Diosa del Taco, is standing in the kitchen, pan in hand.
It’s early – especially if, like Sebastian, you were up working until 3 a.m. – but he can’t wait to start cooking again.
Should he fix breakfast or lunch?
He settles on a medley of taco favorites – the Astorianos chicken, the Al Pastor, the Carne Asada and two vegetarian versions, the Flor de Jamaica and the Coliflor.
In a well choreographed routine that keeps him dancing from grill to cutting board, Sebastian, black-haired, bespectacled and buoyant, assembles the tacos and artfully arranges them on plates.
“I’m just cooking what I know – legitimate tacos reminiscent of what Mexican ones taste like,” he says as he carries the dishes to the dining room, where the brick walls are painted white, the tables have wooden tops, and the gigantic triple-tier crystal chandelier is as glitzy as a Vegas showgirl.
Astoriana Diosa del Taco – “diosa” is Spanish for “goddess” — is a modern-style taqueria with a Mexican-Greek theme.
It’s new to the neighborhood’s culinary scene, but Sebastian’s association with restaurants began right before he made his entrance into the world four decades ago.
(For the record, Sebastian may be 40, but he likes to add that “I’m going on 18.”)
Sebastian, who was born in El Paso, Texas, was raised in the rural ranch town of Casas Grandes, Mexico and later the industrial center Ciudad Juárez.
“In those days, it was easy to cross the border into the United States, and people did it all the time to go shopping,” he says, adding that he has dual Mexican-American citizenship, which also was easy to get at that time. “My parents were eating out in El Paso when my mother went into labor.”
Growing up, Sebastian, whose family is what he calls “middle class by Mexican standards,” learned a lot of things; cooking wasn’t one of them.
“Casas Grandes is a Mormon/Catholic town,” he says. “The street outside my house was gravel. My school was close to the American system – half of the classes were in English, half were in Spanish.”
He didn’t find himself in the kitchen until he enrolled at the University of Texas at El Paso.
“I worked my way through college working in restaurants,” he says.
After he earned a degree in marketing and entrepreneurship, in 2005, Sebastian moved to New York City.
“I had a friend who worked for a Mexican marketing company,” he says. “I came to get a job there, and while I was waiting for an opening to occur, I started working in restaurants.”
Sebastian got hooked on cooking after a chef offered to give him lessons on his days off.
Later, he worked his way through culinary school then got gigs at several Manhattan restaurants, including 11 Madison Park, Mary’s Fish Camp, Centrico, Ilili and Zarela.
“I never did go into marketing,” he says, adding that that’s actually a good thing because he never would have met his wife had he done so. “She was a customer at Zarela and was there on closing night in 2011 when I stopped in.”
By 2014, Sebastian was the executive sous chef at La Esquina. He also was longing to open his own restaurant, so he moved to Dallas. While he was a chef at a restaurant there, he set up a summertime food truck, El Rudo, in Denton, which he still runs.
“When my wife was pregnant with our daughter, who is now three, we moved back to New York,” he says.
All of his experiences paved the way for Astoriana Diosa del Taco, which is officially opening this week.
“We do traditional flavors with a modern spin,” Sebastian says. “Even though the tacos are tweaked, they are still legitimate tacos.”
For instance, Astoriana’s signature taco, which is stuffed into a Sonora-style tortilla made in-house, features funky greens, tzatziki, tahini, tomatoes and choice of chicken, lamb, beef or hibiscus filling.
Sebastian is taking things one taco at a time; he doesn’t talk about opening additional restaurants or creating an Astoriana Diosa del Taco chain.
He says only that “I want Astoriana to become a staple in the neighborhood.”
As he clears the table, he adds, “I’ve done the whole fine-dining thing. But I like the simplicity of tacos.”
Copyright 2020 by Nancy A. Ruhling