Once a cook in the Army, New London man now runs family-friendly restaurant in Groton
Groton ― Justin Shaw has gone from growing up in a family where his mother served in the Navy and his father had a few restaurants, to working as a cook in the Army, to opening his own restaurant, where he continues to serve military members.
On Sept. 20, he held the grand opening for Astin J’s, an unassuming restaurant in Groton Shopping Plaza dishing up wings, chicken tenders, burgers, hot sandwiches and tacos. Shaw’s favorite thing to cook is the tacos ($16), which come with three pork chili-verde, chicken or birria tacos; seasoned rice; and beans. And he said his spicy chicken sandwich “is becoming very popular.”
“I kind of wanted to do a wide variety of things but keep it simple,” Shaw said. “I wanted it to be a restaurant families feel they can come to.”
It’s a kid-friendly menu in a kid-friendly space. Sitting down for an interview, he got up to grab a stack of drawings kids have done at the restaurant, which he intends to frame and hang on the wall. Some are already up, along with a few drawings from the namesake of the restaurant: his 7-year-old son, Astin.
“He has a very unique ability to make people feel special,” Shaw said of his oldest son, who is autistic, and that’s the theme he wants to bring to Astin J’s.
The restaurant doesn’t have any wait staff yet, so people can call ahead or order at the register, and then dine in or take the food to go.
“I’ve been wanting to open a restaurant for a long time,” said Shaw, 35, who said he started cooking at age 14 or 15. He said wings and mac and cheese were big things growing up, and so they carried over to his menu now.
The wings ($9 to $19, for 7 to 15 pieces) come in buffalo, garlic parmesan, southern fried, lemon pepper and hot honey, while the side of mac and cheese ($5) has the optional add-on of chicken poppers.
There’s also the Philly cheesesteak ($8 or $12), with grilled onions, American cheese or Cheese Whiz and optional toppings of bell pepper, jalapeno, mushrooms, lettuce or tomato. Shaw was born in West Philadelphia, and with his mother serving in the Navy, he moved around before landing in Groton. After graduating from Fitch High School in 2005, he studied sociology at the University of Connecticut.
Faced with student loan debt after graduating, Shaw joined the Army, spending four years active-duty ― mostly in Alaska ― and then six in the Reserves.
Near the beginning of his time in the Army, Shaw married Amanda. They met when he was working in the former EbLens clothing store in the plaza next to Astin J’s and she was working at the liquor store. They now have two kids: Astin and Lenix, 3.
The couple came back to the area in 2014, and eventually bought a house in New London. Shaw said he worked as a cook at Groton Public Schools and Thai Sawasdee, which used to operate in the same spot where Astin J’s is now.
With labor shortages, Thai Sawasdee owner Ricky Au said last summer he had to close the restaurant to use staff for his other three restaurants ― Pink Basil, Spice Club and Samurai Noodle Bar & Grill ― and that the closure could end up being permanent.
Shaw then worked as a cook at Apple Rehab in Westerly. His sister-in-law Destiny Caban also worked there, and she came with him to Astin J’s.
He said it’s been an adjustment going from the mass production of cooking for the Army and a nursing home to making everything to order. But he was a line cook years ago and said it’s coming back to him, “almost like riding a bike.”
IF YOU GO
Business: Astin J’s
Where: 762 Long Hill Road, Groton
Contact info: (860) 326-5027
Hours: 11 a.m. to 7 p.m. Sunday to Thursday, 11 a.m. to 8 p.m. Friday to Saturday, closed Sunday and Monday