Tourist season is fast approaching, along with (hopefully) throngs of people scouring the streets of Yerevan for something to eat other than barbeque or shawerma. Chefs here attempt to tackle on favorite delicacies of the West such as the staple signature sandwich, the hamburger, which here is literally that—a round, not so thick piece of ham pan-fried or boiled served on a dry roll, usually too large for the meat. Then there is pizza, which can be found at many dining establishments but nearly always resembles and tastes like anything but.
Before I go on, let me define "pizza" as what I have come to know and love. In America, especially Boston which must be one of the pizza Meccas of the world with a pizza shop nearly on every other corner throughout suburbia, pizza is usually a hand-tossed slab of dough rolled out into a round, flat mass, then topped with tomato sauce, cheese, and optional various vegetable or meat toppings as determined by personal taste. I am excluding designer pizzas in my definition as well as genuine Italian pizza, which is tasty but in no way reminiscent of its American counterpart. In Yerevan, pizza is usually a miserable attempt to resemble what many of us know it to be—a dried-out crust usually prefabricated, topped with sub-mediocre cheese usually unsuitable for cooking, and a strange red base faintly reminiscent of having a tomato origin. The result is less than pleasurable and leaves the eater with huge expectations for a taste sampling of his native home hugely disappointed.
But for all of you who are planning to visit Armenia in the coming summer and autumn months, I have found two places that do make an excellent pizza, both of which are on the increasingly ritzy Abovyan Street in central Yerevan.
One place that I have often frequented when pining for pizza is called Diamond
and is located at the very end of Abovyan as you enter Republic Square on the right side, just next to the Ministry of Foreign Affairs. Firstly, the dough is fresh, and not rolled out too thin. They offer nearly 20 selections, with each one featuring a variety of interesting topping combinations from fresh vegetables to the dried meats "sujukh" and "basterma" to various kinds of Russian sausage. The cheese resembles or is mozzarella, and the tomato base seems to be a tangy sauce with hints of oregano and other spices. Pizza is most always served in Armenia regardless of where it is eaten with ketchup, spicy or sweet, which you will find here as well. Two sizes are offered with a 200 dram difference or so between them.
Another place further up on Aboyvan north of the Sayat Nova intersection that I have walked by dozens of times since my first visit five years ago but never entered until a week ago at the suggestion of a friend is called California Pizza
(nothing to do with the US restaurant chain). The pizza here is better I believe, with the same quality of ingredients you will find at Diamond but overall tastier. We tried the "Armenian" pizza, featuring basterma and chopped green peppers, and the "Chicken", which has hunks of chicken breast and mushrooms. Both have a tomato sauce base and are generously applied with mozzarella cheese.
In terms of atmosphere, California Pizza resembles the pizza shops I have often frequented in Boston, sparsely decorated with framed posters of famous bridges and US cities, ordinary tables and chairs, and mural-covered walls. Diamond on the other hand offers plenty of natural lighting, although the predominant color scheme is a dark lime green with matching curtains, velour I believe. If you get there around 6:00 pm or so you'll be treated with live music, usually consisting of a guy sitting at a synthesizer/drum machine and singing Armenian popular favorites rather badly, with another guy feebly playing saxophone.
In case you are wondering about "Armenian pizza", referred to as lahmejune in the west or lahmajo here, in Yerevan there are such stores abound. Each place has its own offering that differs in taste and quality from the next. There is a 24-hour lahmejune chain store
, where the mini ground meat and veggie paper-thin pizza is made to order. I have seen such stores at the corner of Moscovyan and Aboyan Streets, Dikran the Great Street when passing by the "Gumi" open market, and at Friendship Square, but there are many more.
Another great spot is located on Tumanian Street adjacent from Opera Park and on the fringes of the Northern Boulevard currently being constructed is called Our Neighborhood
and offers "Aintab-style" lahmejune. The portions are rather large and very tasty but the meat fatty, served with wedges of lemon. Again lahmejune is cooked to order here as well but in the basement kitchen—the lahmejune is hoisted upstairs on an ingenious vertical conveyor belt to be toasted to perfection. They offer both the carbonated and non-carbonated yoghurt drink tan as well as a tan drink containing chopped cucumbers and dill. Sarkis the owner is the son of Genocide survivors who came to Yerevan, and thus he speaks perfect Western Armenian as well as Eastern. He is very accommodating to Diasporan Armenians.
There’s one more very good no-name Lahmejune bakery
on Pushkin Street near the Mashdots intersection, owned by an Armenian from Beirut, that also offers “zataar” and “tahine” breads, both of which are hard to come by.
I will write about other interesting places for hungry tourists to visit, located both in and outside Yerevan in the coming weeks. And please leave comments about places I have missed.
Labels: Food and Drink, Personal Experiences