From the start, I knew that I wouldn’t find what I was looking for: my great uncle’s baklava shop. A large office building rises where his shop used to be, right around the corner from the dome of St. Demetrios Greek Orthodox Church in Astoria, Queens. But I still couldn’t help looking up the address.
My great uncle, Michael Eliades, owned two pastry shops in Astoria, one being the Kismet near St. Demetrios, which employed my grandfather when he first arrived in the United States. When my family sought to leave Istanbul, Turkey, it was my great uncle who got my grandfather a visa as an “Oriental pastry chef.” In Istanbul, my grandfather had run his own small meze shop, or delicatessen, just outside the Egyptian Spice Bazaar, and my grandmother had occasionally pitched in by cooking appetizers he sold in store, but confectionery was outside of my grandfather’s culinary purview.
Once he came to the States, however, dessert making became a whole family affair. My father often recounts how, while watching television, he and his twin brother would string up walnuts on foot-long strings that would later be dipped multiple times to become şeker sujuk, or sugar sausage, which was described in a 1971 issue of New York Magazine as “a candy snake, charmed into a friendly coil, his belly full of walnuts and his skin anointed with sugar.” My father and his brother would then help move the paper-thin sheets of phyllo from the cutting table to a counter where they’d be turned into the finished product: baklava. Later on, they’d balance the finished trays on the subway to deliver them to nightclubs in Hell’s Kitchen.
When my family sought to leave Istanbul, Turkey, it was my great uncle who got my grandfather a visa as an “Oriental pastry chef.”
According to my father and to Giorgos Sakalis, one of the owners of Victory Sweet Shop, a Queens baklava shop that’s still in operation, my great uncle was at that time the only supplier of baklava and phyllo dough to retailers and home cooks in the greater New York area. Sakalis even bought his phyllo from my great uncle when he first started his bakery in the 1960s.
But Michael Eliades did not just make phyllo dough and baklava. His own father was a candy maker in Istanbul, and when Uncle Mike – as I knew him – bought the Melkon on 31st Street in the late 1940s, and later opened Kismet on 23rd Avenue, his shops sold so much more than baklava that they were Middle Eastern sweet emporiums. He made kataifi, the shredded wheat-looking substance that goes into many Middle Eastern and Greek sweets, and the finished dessert itself, which is similar to baklava. He sold plain, rosewater, walnut, and pistachio loukoumi, or lokum, made from nuts imported from Turkey; rock candy; koulourakia (buttery and sweet Greek cookie twists flavored with orange rind); kourabiedes (another Greek cookie with a center of butter and crushed almonds, caught in a powdered sugar halo that demands to be followed by a glass of milk or cup of coffee); mastiha gum; and much more.
While the businesses didn’t survive my great uncle’s move to Florida in the late 1970s, there are fortunately a slew of baklava places in Astoria and beyond that are the heirs to his legacy (and a delicious threat to everyone’s diet). After making the rounds with a friend, here are some of our favorites.
Victory Sweet Shop
Giorgos Sakalis doesn’t use a ruler to make the precise cuts that lead to his geometrically divine and delicious baklava. He measures with his hands, and then, with his chef’s knife, slices clean, even pieces. As he goes along, he douses the top layer with vegetable oil before going in for the next cut, his fingers pinching the top of the pieces in between his knife as he cuts the next diagonal. The effect is transfixing, and even his helpers in the kitchen can’t help but stop their work to watch the master.
Sakalis, an immigrant from the island of Nysiros, Greece, and his wife, Antigoni, who is originally from Rhodes, have been running Victory since 1968, when they bought it out from a war veteran. In 2012, they expanded their operation to include a full-service café and restaurant, run by their daughter Anna, but it’s the perfectly crisp baklava with the right amount of premium smoked almonds – with the skin still on, which Sakalis says makes all the difference — that we’ve come back here for. The recipes for all of Victory’s pastries hail from Nysiros, and the shop is a well-known supplier of tsoureki, a sweet bread, to countless Greek festivals, restaurants, and shops, in addition to its baklava.
The brightly lit and narrow Middle Eastern dessert shop at the heart of Astoria’s “Little Egypt” neighborhood along a small stretch of Steinway Street offers more than meets the eye. The baklava here is a tactile experience with the right amount of stickiness without being overly syrupy, unlike its Greek cousins, so you won’t have to worry about your fingers getting messy. Their plain baklava with walnuts was one of our favorites, but we also recommend trying the belly button baklava topped with pistachios, which is crisp and tightly wound, and the “cigar” rolls, too.
All of the fixtures, seating, and decorations in Artopolis – by far the fanciest pastry shop on our list – have been imported directly from Greece, “from the floor up,” says owner Regina Katopodis, who opened the shop in 2003. For a while Katopodis, a Greek-American who spent many years in Greece, says they even imported the ribbons they tied on their products for extra flair. The brightly lit shop is more than just Hellenic chic, though. Its baklava, all ten varieties of it, is made according to recipes from all over Greece. What we loved most was the classic baklava that’s stuffed with a generous helping of walnuts, and the experimental coconut baklava. There’s plenty of space by design to have a cup of coffee with your baklava here, too, as Artopolis serves Greece’s national non-alcoholic drinks: the cold cappuccino known as the freddo cappuccino, frappe (the only potable form of Nescafe) and traditional Greek coffee, as well as drip coffee.
The best Greek all-in-one bakery and grocery store in Astoria has been making baklava since 1984. While the baklava in the store is made on premises, Titan also sells it wholesale with a baking facility in Deer Park, Long Island, to a diverse clientele. Its founders, Konstantinos Mastoras and Dimitris Hatzipolichronis, both immigrated in 1976 from Kavala and Athens, respectively. Their origins from the opposite ends of Greece result in a universal but solid baklava recipe – it is as sugar-soaked as one expects Greek baklava to be, but also full of nuts and sometimes topped with coconut.
Mt. Ararat Bakery
The secret to John Kouyoudjian’s unusual baklava is fresh, never frozen phyllo dough, and a lot of cinnamon and brown sugar with the occasional walnut crumb. Kouyoudjian’s recipe, which also features a touch of lemon in the very light-handed pouring of syrup, comes from his parents, Nazaret and Sonya, immigrants from Armenia who founded the bakery in 1980. The bakery, which is a bit further afield in Oakland Gardens, also makes pistachio baklava that’s reminiscent of the best baklava in Istanbul, buttery and slightly sticky without drowning in syrup, which Kouyoudjian’s business partner, Sammy Kawam, says is made by customer request. While the shop is Armenian, Ararat’s customers also come from outside of the community, including Greeks, Turks and Iranians, as evidenced by the wide array of products like dried mulberries that one is hard-pressed to find elsewhere.
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