New bakery brings taste of Armenia to Las Vegas

Amahit Abrahamyan sets down freshly baked Armenian bread called puri at Van Bakery in Las Vegas ...

First, honey cake. Then, business. At Van Bakery, priorities are in order.

And those priorities proved fortuitous one morning last month when a visitor stopped by to learn about the new Armenian bakery. Because what better way to learn about a bakery than by tasting a signature baked good?

The honey cake is served in bars that alternate thin strata of honey-flavored cake and sweet pastry cream, with a sanding of honeyed crumbs on top. The cake is moist but with body, sweet but not cloying, and wickedly habit-forming.

Asmik Yetaryan, her husband and a son own Van Bakery, named for a historically Armenian city in eastern Turkey. This Armenian family opened its first bakery 30 years ago in Los Angeles to serve the city’s large Armenian population. Over the years, the family opened two more bakeries, eventually serving not just L.A. customers, but also the handful of Armenian markets that had opened in Las Vegas.

“We were driving up products from L.A.,” said Ed Halebian, the son. “We figured it would be easier to open up a store here instead of keeping on driving back and forth.”

The family, all now living in Vegas, launched Van Bakery last October. And the rest is honey cake.

Pastry prowess

Las Vegas is home to about 40,000 Armenians, according to Christine Datian, a member of the community, who gushed about discovering Van Bakery.

“I walked in, and it was like walking into a different world. L.A. has endless amounts of Armenian bakeries. To have something of this background and quality in Vegas — these people know how to make everything. It’s all authentic.”

Besides honey cake, Yetaryan and four Armenian assistants create from scratch about 50 Armenian breads and pastries.

There are buttery crumbly khurabia — shortbread cookies — dusted with a flurry of confectioners sugar; and braids of choreg, an egg sweetbread traditionally made for Easter, just a bit dry as it should be; and bites of gata, a nut and sugar-filled pastry halfway between rugelach and croissants.

“It’s in the oven; I’m gonna bring it in a minute,” Yetaryan said of a fresh batch of gata headed for the table.

Other items followed from the oven: pillowy pastry puffs, called khachapuri, filled with seven cheeses, and pastry turnovers — airy, flaky, crashy — with a hoard of green pepper and basturma, a cured beef.

“It’s like prosciutto for us,” Halebian said of the basturma

Apricots, cheese, cow’s feet

A market incorporates roughly half of the 5,000-square-foot Van Bakery.

In the produce aisle, stacks of Persian cucumbers keep company with gnarls of ginger (an item added at the request of Chinese customers). Bottles of apricot compote — in this case, a juice, not a preserve — include sliced chunks of fruit.

“Apricot is big Armenian fruit,” Halebian said. “You dump in the fruit, let it infuse, so you’re not just relying on sugar for flavor.”

Grains and pastas fill the shelves: rice, green lentils for soup, bulgur, orzo, vermicelli. To make one of her special dishes, Yetaryan boils basmati rice, vermicelli and orzo separately then heats to combine. She serves the dish alongside chicken breast sautéed in butter or olive oil.

The cheese case — Armenians adore cheese — offers braids of smoked chechil, a lean cow’s milk cheese; Bulgarian sheep’s milk cheese; labneh yogurt cheese, thick and tangy; and briny balls of Piknik white cheese that’s sliced for eating with tomatoes, greens and flatbread.

(“I don’t eat cheese,” Halebian admitted. “I’m the only Armenian you’ll find who doesn’t eat cheese.”)

One cold case contains oxtail for oxtail soup, Moldovan salami, lamb spare ribs, and thick cubes of pork belly marinated in Aleppo pepper. Another case offers containers of khash, a beloved soup of boiled cow’s feet and other parts.

“It’s something Armenians go crazy for, especially during the winter,” Halebian said. “It was once a peasant dish; now, it’s a delicacy.”

Sharing through baking

The other morning, Yetaryan assisted customers while her assistants kneaded, rolled and baked. She spooned out salad by the pound (winner: tarragon chicken salad). She boxed cheese puffs and other pastries. She packed up choreg by the loaf and roll (Easter was a few days away).

Many customers who were new to Armenian bakeries, she said, had asked her about her breads and pastries. She would share her culture, she decided, through instruction.

“I want to soon start classes,” she said. “People want to learn, so I don’t mind to teach.”

Interested in the secrets of honey cake and other Armenian baked goods? Email vanbakery@gmail.com.

Contact Johnathan L. Wright at jwright@reviewjournal.com. Follow @ItsJLW on Twitter.