Tucked away from the constant hustle and bustle of Queens Boulevard, Anna and George Artunian’s Sunnyside bakery, Arsi’s Pateseria, is a pleasant surprise. As we walk down 47th Avenue towards the gauzy Midtown Manhattan skyline, the smell of freshly baked burekas greets us long before we get to the bakery’s wide window.
Inside, in metal trays behind the counter, four different types of burekas, savory sesame ring cookies and even baklava gleam in different shades of gold. Also behind the counter is 60-year-old Anna Artunian, one-half of the husband-and-wife team running the establishment and chatting with the customers, most of whom are regulars.
For anyone who grew up eating burekas, there’s so much comfort to be found in this flaky, savory pastry. In a geography that extends from the Caucasus to the Middle East and Balkans, bureka – also called börek and burek, among other names – evokes the memories of caring matriarchs who bake it fresh and breakfast platters or teatime trays with the accompanying yogurt, fresh cucumbers and tomatoes. Here in New York City, finding this baked good beyond the form of spanakopita in the freezer aisle often requires a subway ride, one that we are happy to work into our schedule.
The house pies at Arsi’s are five-inch-wide triangles (nicknamed muska böreği in Turkey’s Anatolian region after the similarly shaped Muslim prayer amulets worn as necklaces) made from layers of phyllo, and they come with four different fillings: cheese, spinach and cheese, potato and mushroom. Then there’s the cheese pie, a tubular savory croissant and bureka hybrid with sesame seeds that is crispy on the outside and spongy with lots of air and feta crumbles on the inside. The spinach pie is of an egg-filled, moist and square variety that would be at home in the borough’s many Greek diners. Most surprisingly, next to these three trays sits a tray of su böreği, with its meticulously arranged layers of dough and feta cheese folded within, cut into portions – the kind of labor-intensive dish that was once a special-occasions-only delicacy. Mrs. Artunian makes it with phyllo instead of the more traditional hand-rolled dough, with extra milk and eggs added to achieve the silken and moist layers.
The Artunians have been in love with each other in Queens for 40 years and in business together for 27 years. It all started at husband George Artunian’s imported Greek food store in Astoria in 1990, when Mrs. Artunian started baking spinach pie at home (single trays at first, more once they started selling really well) and would have Mr. Artunian sell her creations at the counter. Cheese pie came next, followed by dolma. “I was trying everything, and everything was selling,” Mrs. Artunian remembers. “The Greeks in Astoria liked everything we made more than what their own bakeries were making.”
In the wake of 9/11, their business was still doing well, but a lot of other stores in Astoria were shutting down. In 2002, when their landlord told them their lease wouldn’t be renewed, the couple looked into relocating to Sunnyside, where Anna’s parents, now needing close medical attention, still lived – and along came the 47th Avenue location. Here, they decided to focus on the baked goods. A big part of their business is wholesale: they provide cafes and restaurants across New York City with baklava and bureka, feeding troves of homesick, curious or simply intrigued mouths every day. It’s hard to find Mr. Artunian in the store – “he’s always out, marketing, delivering, buying,” Mrs. Artunian explains. “George and I are married to each other, and the business.” True to the multicultural texture of the neighborhood, the woman who works on baklavas with Mrs. Artunian is originally from Mexico.
Both sets of the Artunians’ parents came to Queens by way of Armenia, but her side of the family has a triple-migration story. Her Romanian grandparents left Bucharest after World War II, trying their luck in the Armenian capital, Yerevan. “They thought life was going to be really good in Armenia, but it wasn’t,” she says. “They were working a lot and barely surviving.” With help from Mrs. Artunian’s great-uncles who had directly immigrated to United States after World War II, her family arrived in the States in 1976, and she met her husband shortly after.
Originally from Yerevan, Mr. Artunian’s family had arrived 10 years prior. Although he doesn’t have any siblings, Mr. Artunian’s cousins taught Mrs. Artunian how to bake more complex recipes, like su böreği. It didn’t hurt that she had grown up with a grandmother who made her own baklava, either.
Unlike those in Los Angeles or Boston, the Armenian community in New York is not concentrated in any single neighborhood. But in addition to Sunnyside’s Irish, Turkish, Latin American and Filipino communities, Mrs. Artunian does have some Armenian customers who live nearby. Her own cosmopolitan roots remain intact: Mrs. Artunian can speak Armenian, Romanian, Russian, Turkish and Spanish – switching gears without skipping a beat. Inside the bakery, a small oil painting of the Armenian national symbol, Mount Ararat, as viewed from Yerevan, hangs on one of the walls.
As if the bakery needed any additional warmth or charm, when the weather is nice enough it’s possible to find a pair of plastic chairs on the sidewalk – a habit from the Old World that is easier to revive in Queens, than say, Midtown. And few things make us happier than a $1.25 bureka under blue skies.