Want The Best Authentic Armenian Food? Head To Watertown
Sure, the food in this part of town is having a moment. But locals have enjoyed the many Armenian markets here for years.
Thanks to Wikipedia, I now know two facts about Watertown.
Fact 1: It’s a city that chooses redundancy over incongruity, preferring to be formally addressed as The Town of Watertown.
Fact 2: After Los Angeles and Fresno, Watertown has the third largest Armenian population in the country. As such, the city supports three Armenian markets all sharing the same block and a half of Mount Auburn Street. (There’s a fourth, Eastern Lamejun Bakers on nearby Belmont Street, which I unfortunately couldn’t visit.)
All three have been around for at least 30 years and their unique style of Middle Eastern food brings consumers of all types to Watertown’s Coolidge Square.
It’s a hot day and my t-shirt's soaked through when I get to Sevan Bakery. I step into the tight quarters of the market, cooling off in the AC while experiencing the familiar smells of Middle Eastern spices. (Armenia is not a Middle Eastern country, but it was part of the Ottoman Empire so the culinary traditions are very similar to what you’d find in its southern neighbors.) Whiffs of sumac, cumin, cardamom and anise put me in the right frame of mind while I check out Sevan’s impressive olive and nut bars as well as their deli counter filled with salty cheeses, fresh baked bread and prepared foods. I chat with Murat Chavushian, who owns the bakery along with his brother, Nuran. (Their parents, Margrit and Kapriyel, from whom they inherited the business, still pull regular shifts.)
Murat takes me behind the register to chat, answering my questions while simultaneously helping customers. It doesn’t surprise Murat that the three markets are able to thrive in such close proximity. “Everyone has their own following, their own clientele,” he says. “We’ve been around for so long, everyone gets used to so-and-so’s grape leaves or baklava. People go nuts for our baklava, I’ll say that.”
I pick up a few of my favorites on the way out. Labneh with za’atar (strained yogurt with a middle eastern spice blend, $6.99/lb.), spinach pies (tangy, savory pastries, stuffed with spinach and onion, $1.99) and a handful of nougat candies with pistachios ($15.99/lb.). Murat asks me if I want one of the spinach pies warmed up. I pause though I’m not sure why. Of course I do.
The next stop, Arax Market, is a few steps away. This is a bigger store, with more space for fresh produce. There’s also an olive bar here along with baklava and cookie bars, fresh bread and prepared foods in ready to-go plastic containers.
The refrigerated deli case is a colorful mix of dips, salads and savory pastries. There are enough mezze combinations here to keep you busy mixing and matching for a long time. I opt for a container each of muhammara (pureed pomegranate, red peppers and nuts, $7.99/lb.), ikra (a roasted eggplant and tomato salad, 6.99/lb.) and jar of pickled labneh ($7.50), that’s not made in house, but is too intriguing not to buy.
Lastly, I head to Massis Bakery. If Sevan is packed tight and Arax is more expansive, Massis is somewhere in the middle. I get there during a midday lull and poke around. Massis has the olive bar, baklava, fresh baked breads and prepared items, but it also offers take-out food like sandwiches and lamejun (Armenian pizza). There are even a couple tables to sit and eat. I order a basturma (air-dried cured beef) roll-up ($6.99) with lettuce, tomato and garlic sauce, and a small container of pickled radishes ($4.99/lb.). After enjoying my roll-up, I chat with Missak Ourfalian who runs the market with his brother, Sarkis.
“My parents started this business back in 1977. We would come and help them after school,” Missak says. “Today, we have a wide customer base. Basically because the food is healthy and interesting. It’s not just a niche market.”
We’re lucky the city of The Town of Watertown is such a rich resource for Armenian food and culture. Especially in the hot summer months, it’s hard to beat the variety of light, fresh options from these markets. And if you do figure out who’s got the best grape leaves, please let me know.
Eastern Lamejun Bakers – 145 Belmont St., Watertown, 617.484.3643, easternlamejun.com
Massis Bakery – 569 Mt. Auburn St., Watertown, 617.924.0537, massisbakery.com
Arax Market – 585 Mt. Auburn St., Watertown, 617.924.3399
Sevan Bakery – 599 Mt. Auburn St., Watertown, 617.924.3243, sevanboston.com