On an otherwise nondescript stretch of Broadway in Astoria, Muncan is a food haven, a veritable cornucopia of house-cured and smoked meats. Most famous for its intimidating selection of quality bacon, Muncan has become something of a Queens institution for Eastern European charcuterie. Sausages, bacon, ham hocks, and smoked trotters hang above the L-shaped counter, which itself is home to an embarrassment of meat.
The store, owned and operated by the Muncan family for decades, is managed by Sebastian Racovitza. He's the kind of guy who, when you ask for a recommendation, will suggest, "everything." Sebastian heads a multi-ethnic crew of Hispanic and Eastern European workers, all of whom juggle several languages' worth of terms to navigate the store's inventory.
If you're lucky, you might get a chance to chat with Tima Muncan, the company's affable patriarch. When he was teenager in the former Republic of Yugoslavia, Tima's Romanian father advised him to "find something you know people will need." In the rural village they called home, work was limited; even a doctor only had so many ailments to cure. Those words were taken seriously.
Tima chose to become a butcher. After earning a trade degree, he served as a cook in the army before striking West in 1971 with his brother John for the U.S. They landed in Queens, where they've been ever since. The brothers worked for a series of butchers, the last of which ran a shop in Astoria. When Tima found out that his boss was putting the place up for sale, he saw his opportunity to realize the dream that brought him to America—and so Muncan was born.
Together, the brothers began offering a selection of traditional Eastern European charcuterie, approximately 30 products in total, with a bent towards the Romanian and Serbo-Croatian specialties. They sold food they were intimately familiar with, the cured meat of humble origins that could, back home, be found hanging out to dry in the family barn. Muncan began making noise with the local Slavic population. Their products offering these immigrants, in the words of Tima's grandson Marko, "a portal back home."
The shop has never taken shortcuts. "If you're trying to cut corners, people won't come back. We are not about greed," Marko insisted. "We are always looking for quality in everything we do. We strive for consistency because the only thing more important than producing a great tasting product, is doing it again and again so that the salami you bought 2 years ago and fell in love with is the same thing you will be eating today and for the next 20 years. My father is giving the customers the same products he feeds his family."
Muncan was Tima's baby, but it was his son-in-law Mike Stefanovic who would push the store to the next level. Born in Yugoslavia, Stefanovic immigrated to the U.S. in the early 1980s and immediately went to work for his father-in-law. Soon after, he started running the company's second location in Ridgewood.
Managing the store, he found himself unable to say no to a customer: "he would run across the street to buy ingredients to make fried chicken," Marko recalled. But customers kept coming to him looking for charcuterie that Muncan didn't offer. Tima was hesitant to expand the shop's inventory, but Mike became driven to bring back the "really old stuff," products others had forgotten about.
He started asking customers making trips home to smuggle back those sausages and meats they waxed poetic about. When they delivered, Mike would taste them, analyze them, and reproduce them as best he could. Alongside the usual Romanian suspects he sold paprika-laced sausages and bacon for the Hungarians and pancetta for the Istrians. Sensing the beginnings of a good thing, Tima converted their third store into a production facility and put his son-in-law in charge. Their inventory continued to grow, ballooning to a dizzying 120 products today, with additional products available seasonally. Standouts include double-smoked bacon ($6.99 a pound), lamb salami, and the recently introduced duck prosciutto ($27.99 a pound).
Muncan's evolution captures the spirit of Queens. What began as a small shop selling Romanian charcuterie to an Eastern European niche grew into an institution serving people of all kinds. Muncan continues to expand its selection; in recent years Mike has begun making pork-free products for his son's Muslim best friend, and chorizo for his Hispanic workers, some of whom have been with the company for 20 years. It's also telling that their most popular product is jumari, also known as, chicharones ($6.99 a pound).
Though Tima remains a fixture at his Astoria flagship, he has begun to cede his role to his grandson. Marko studied English at college and had few intentions of joining the family business. He briefly considered going into law, but figured, "I didn't want to sit around and make photocopies for 5 years." That was when he realized the opportunity that had always been right in front of him.
"If this business didn't exist, I would've gone to culinary school," he admitted. "I love working with my family. These guys," he says, nodding to his employees in the kitchen, "I grew up with them. They watched me grow up. I don't dread coming here. It's like I'm leaving home to come home."
When he isn't finishing up his MBA, Marko can be found experimenting with his father at their Ridgewood facility, making Norwegian-style lox or jumari and cheese burek (hand pies). He credits the country's renewed culinary fascination for making the store more popular than ever. The clientele has gotten younger with the years, helping their business thrive.
It looks like Marko will keep Muncan in good hands: "All the products, those traditional products, I always want to have people be able to find those here," he says. "We want to play with process and technique, but we don't want to lose sight of that essence of tradition. When I'm a grandpa, 50 years down the line, I still want to be able to have those things."
Muncan Food Corp
4309 Broadway, Astoria, NY 11103 (map)
6086 Myrtle Avenue, Ridgewood, NY 11385 (map)
About the author: Chris Crowley is a former Serious Eats intern and the author of the Bronx Eats column. You can follow him on twitter here, or pay a visit to his new food blog, Sound Bites, over on Wordpress.