Chris Miles can tell you a lot about growing up in Rockaway. He started working as a paperboy at age 11, then worked at a stationery store, a baseball card store, and by age 16, was working at the pizza place across the street from the restaurant he now owns, Pico. “Rockaway is a great little town, very family-oriented,” he tells me, “but there wasn’t anything to do out here growing up.” In the last seven years or so, he’s seen a real shift.
After working for years at Kennedy’s Restaurant in Breezy Point, Miles’ now-partner, Bill Keating, approached him about managing a seafood restaurant. The food was good, and business was doing well, but the style of food – seafood and sushi – just wasn’t accessible to most customers. It was a special occasion restaurant and not a typical Tuesday night out for many in the neighborhood. A few months before Hurricane Sandy struck, the owners of Rockaway Seafood discussed rebranding and changing up the menu. But before they had a chance to change a thing, Sandy wiped out the whole place.
They talked about throwing in the towel, but that wasn’t really an option. With a clean slate, they had the opportunity to try something new. They talked about trying Mexican cuisine. “It’s something that people think is simple, but you can do a lot with it, it’s a food that people associate with fun,” says Miles. The community has really embraced Pico because of the consistency, flavors, and freshness. They make their guac three times a day, they fry their own chips in-house, and smoke their own meats. “We buy the ketchup and the mayonnaise, everything else we make,” jokes Miles.
Pico is a little off the beaten path on Beach 129th Street, yet they still see their fair share of beach-goers. Customers pack the place on any given sunny Sunday in the summer. In fact, over the winter, Pico still had customers coming by ferry from Manhattan and Brooklyn who were craving the tacos, but they stay humble. “I don’t like talking about how good our food is. I’d rather have someone eat a pastrami taco that we smoked for 14 hours and say ‘Oh man, that’s one of the best tacos I’ve ever had,'” Miles tells me.
When I asked him what changed, Miles is quick to tell me that there are ten times as many people in Rockaway during the summer than even five years ago. “With more people coming here, [it] means more businesses are able to open,” he says. Businesses like Rockaway Taco opened up the concessions on the boardwalk, which led to other new places opening. “When there’s no competition, people aren’t motivated, but these new business owners are not just here to make money,” Miles points out, “they care about the community.”
This summer, expect to see a Pico “spin-off” in a new part of Rockaway – Beach 68th Street. Miles and Keating, along with their original chef at Pico, Joel Oberlander, are whipping up something new for the neighborhood with more details to follow soon!
Pico is a 22-minute walk from our NYC Ferry landing at Rockaway/Beach 108th Street, or you could take our West Shuttle Bus from the landing and have the driver drop you at Beach 129th Street.