La Rioja serves up flavors of Spain in Queens

Photo by Christina Santucci
By Lisa Autz

Jose Rodriguez, a native Spaniard from that country’s Galicia region, imported all the right ingredients to make an authentic Spanish restaurant in the center of Astoria.

In collaboration with longtime friend Jose Ignacio Sanchez, former chef to Spain’s United Nations ambassador, the restaurant, La Rioja, features cuisine ranging from the northern and southern parts of Spain.

La Rioja is on Broadway between 33rd and 34th streets.

“If you want to try authentic food from Spain, this is the right place to come,” said Rodriguez, the owner and a resident of Jackson Heights.

Rodriguez has had a flair for cooking since he was young. When he moved to Uruguay during Franco’s repressive regime, his culinary interest was first sparked as he watched his aunt, a chef at one of Uruguay’s upscale restaurants, prepare meals.

Since then, he has traveled back to Barcelona and then, about 30 years ago, came to New York City. Since his time here, Rodriguez has owned a bar on Jamaica Avenue, a bakery in Jackson Heights and now La Rioja.

“Astoria is very diverse. There are so many different types of people,” said Rodriguez, when asked why he chose the neighborhood for the location for his restaurant. “There is a large Mediterranean culture here as well.”

Rodriguez became friends with Sanchez when he first came to New York City, and since La Rioja’s opening in 2009 they have teamed up to create unique dishes with Spanish traditions.

The restaurant’s name is inspired by the executive chef’s native La Rioja region of Spain. The world-renown wine region has more than 500 wineries and is internationally known for its wine and food quality. Rodriguez and Sanchez import all of their food and wine from Spain.

“We have a small store in the back for those who want to buy things like ham, cheese and wine straight from Spain,” said Rodriguez. “We have over 15 types of cheeses to choose from.”

One of their most popular dishes is the Segovian-style baby roast pig, which is inspired by the town of Segovia in the region of La Rioja and is the epitome of Castilian cuisine. The whole baby pig is about 25-days-old, barely 9 pounds and is roasted on a stick. Their dishes also include cured Iberian ham, paella, and fideua negra, or black noodles.

The restaurant has also participated in several wine-tasting events, such as the Action Against Hunger Grand Wine-Tasting event in the city.

La Rioja plans to feature live entertainment and drink specials in the near future.

“Hopefully, we will have Flamenco dancing in the fall, other live entertainment and happy hour,” said Rodriguez.

The quaint restaurant packs all the essence of Spain that could be imported.

“If you have never tried food from Spain, this is a great place to start,” said Rodriguez.

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