Day 40: Armenia
Here’s another reason I love Los Angeles: Little Armenia. To be able to go after a very specific food from a country of a little over three million people is a wonderful luxury. Today, that means basturma, the salty, air dried, cured beef. As a lover of the Italian equivalent, bresaola, I really wanted to give this stuff a try. The destination? Sahag’s Basturma in Los Feliz. A small market and sandwich shop in the corner of a strip mall with two tables and two people behind the counter. Folk hero Jason Bernstein didn’t take much convincing to join in on this one as he’s been a champion of their cause for quite some time. He meets me in the parking lot and says “Are you ready to smell like garlic to your entire family and everyone you ever see for the next few days?” I could have sworn I already do.
Stepping inside is entering a tiny world which you’re immediately glad exists. I grab a tarragon soda from the refrigerated section and the folk hero orders us a basturma sandwich and a maaneg (we think it’s veal sausage) sandwich. We get our orders and quickly realize that we were actually given maaneg and soujouk, a dry beef sausage. No matter. Sandwiches are only five dollars, so we just place an order for a basturma sandwich and figure we’ll gorge ourselves. While they’re making the basturma, we sit down to our first two sandwiches. Served with a side of wrinkled black olives, pepperoncinis and the most unbelievably tender pickled radish that could possibly exist in the world, these sandwiches are great examples of simplicity done right. It’s not overloaded with condiments or stuffed inside of domineering bread. It’s sausage, crumbly crusted bread, pickles and tomatoes. The maaneg is so surprisingly light and soothing, it’s easy to forget you’re eating a sausage sandwich. The soujouk is a lot more powerful. Chewy, salty and packed full of spices, it’s a really stimulating contrast, even when washed down with the unnaturally green and extremely sweet tarragon soda. Folk hero Jason Bernstein adds that these things are begging to be paired with beer.
The first two sandwiches were very good, but they weren’t what we came for. A few moments later, our basturma arrives. One look inside and my tongue starts to salivate. I sink my teeth through the bread and into the meat, which immediately begins its full fledged assault on my mouth. Garlic fumes dive head first down my throat, spread into my lungs and swim out through my nose. It’s a flavor so condensed and complex that it makes salami seem downright boring by comparison. After just a few brief moments, it is gone. A memory, a vague recollection, a fleeting dance with brilliance. Then I burp and realize that it is still with me and will continue to be for quite some time. After a pause for thought, I come to the conclusion that there are sandwiches and there are Destination Sandwiches. This is a Destination Sandwich.
Folk hero Jason Bernstein tells me that no Armenian food experience in Los Angeles should take place in just one location, so we shoot a few blocks over to Arax Bakery. Another small, quiet location, but this one is so sparse it barely seems to exist. Breads behind glass, Armenian baked specialties tied up in bags on the counter and a hand written, non-descriptive menu on the wall. Our surly counter man stands silently, assuming that if we want something, we’ll tell him. Full from eating three sandwiches, we decide to keep it simple and split a single order of lahmajunes. Counter man grabs one of the thin, soft discs of tomato, meat and garlic, then goes in the back to heat it up as we watch him through a small square window cut out of the wall. Per Bernstein’s request, he cuts it in half and then charges us a very acceptable ninety cents for our food. We flop it down on the lone table, then bite into the light, soft and herby baked good that I wish I could grab from my kitchen whenever I’m on my way somewhere and need a snack. It is a more than suitable end to our Armenian food adventure.
This is the kind of experience that gives you a taste and makes you want to come back for more. Unpretentious, inexpensive and expertly prepared food that you could easily eat in the car on the way home. After this whole crazy Personal Food Project in Blog Form comes to a close, long after I’ve moved on to whatever the next phase of my life ends up being, I will be driving out to Little Armenia and getting something to eat. This cuisine is a very welcome addition to my list of “Foods I’ll Crave” and one I’m eager to learn a hell of a lot more about.
5183 W Sunset Blvd
Los Angeles, CA 90027
Food Breakdown: 1 non-alcoholic beverages, 3 sandwiches
Distance From My House: 10.3 miles
4871 Santa Monica Blvd
Los Angeles, CA 90029
Food Breakdown: 1 baked good
Distance From My House: 10.2 miles