Bronx Eats: Sizing Up Astor Avenue's Side by Side Pizza & Burek, Pelham Parkway
When I first moved to New York City, I found myself unexpectedly blessed to be living a mere 3 blocks away from burek stalwart Tony and Tina's. Before I discovered those bureks, I only knew of the parlor as a haven for late-night, low-quality pizza binges. I chalked them up as predators, and they were, so it seemed, nothing more and nothing less then your below-average college town pizzeria. In no real compliment to my cognitive abilities, it took me a while to deduce that the word in the neon-red window sign ("burek") wasn't just some strange language's word for pizza. (I grew up right outside New Haven, where we have little else to eat but pizza.)
But once I did, everything changed. I'd always gone nuts for baklava, but this was something else entirely: phyllo that is crispy on the outside and buttery like a croissant within, and stuffed with a savory filling of spinach or feta. It's enough to make a man's knees weak. So, while we're still ahead, I'm going to take the plunge and commit what may be some serious heresy here at Serious Eats (apologies, Mr. Kuban) and—okay, here we go—admit that my love of bureks supersedes my affection for pizza. There. What's done is done.
Don't get me wrong—I understand the perfection that is pizza. The joy of stretchy dough, the creamy mozzarella mixing with the acidic, tangy tomato sauce. Maybe some soppressata? When it's good, it's damn good. So maybe its burek's slightly exotic air, or the common presence of a favorite green, or a general love of all things pastry—I'm not exactly sure. Well, I'm certain it has something to do with both the heft and flakiness. Or maybe it's that there's a real art to this food and doing it right much in the way same that there is to, say, xiao long bao.
While I first discovered the joy of burek at Tony and Tina's, it was at Lydig Avenue's Dukagjini that I recognized what had been up until that point a nascent love. By now, both bureketorjas are long established giants in the world of Outer Borough dining: T & T's for their puréed pumpkin spirals, Dukagjini for their excellent phyllo and clear, quality flavors. So when I caught wind of Side by Side Burek and Pizza, just north of Pelham Parkway, I knew I had see whether they could compete.
Established roughly a decade ago, Side by Side follows a business model similar to Tony's and Tina (with an extended catering menu of more dubious Italian-American food) and their name, it seems, speaks as much to the role of burek in the Balkans as it does to the feeling of brotherhood Albanians extend towards Italians. Inside it's your typical no-frills pizza joint: three tables and no decorations to speak of, a tiny storefront wedged into a street corner. There's no mention of burek ($3)—hidden in the ovens—inside the store, and for good reason. Customers break down into two camps and they don't need to be reminded what they're here for.
So how about that burek? There's more crispiness to the crust, which is cooked to a deeper shade of brown than the golden-hued phyllo of Dukagjini, but it's by no means burned. Three fillings (meat, cheese, and spinach) are offered, all of them in the spiral style. While none of Side by Side's burek are as buttery as their competitors, they're without a doubt less oily then Tony's. Better yet, there's no need to ask them not to microwave your order.
While the fillings here are applied with more restraint, the beef was still on the heavier side. (Lovers of wanton overstuffing, beware.) As far as flavor is concerned, it tasted more or less the same as it always does: the flavor was indistinguishable, as if all of these places order a generic spice mix from a specialty commissary.
I found myself much more pleased with both the spinach and the cheese, the former filled with a more standard issue feta as opposed to the super-tangy, tart, and salty Bulgarian variety sold at nearby European Meat Markets that I was hoping for. I liked the spinach even more. Paired with sautéed white onions, the leaves were a lighter shade of green but just as rich as elsewhere. As always, yogurt ($1.50) is available for dipping. While it's smoother and less tart then at other Bronx burektorjas, it still makes for a good companion when you find yourself in the mood for dunking.
It's not hard to pass a verdict here, largely because it's really difficult to imagine any stateside burek matching the greatness of Dukagjini. But even if Side by Side's burek doesn't rise to the same heights as the competition, it's a solid participant on foot with Tony and Tina's, if not quite as good. (Their falling grace being the absence of a killer app like the former's puréed pumpkin.) But what's wrong with more options? Bring on the burek!
Side by Side Pizza and Burek
769 Astor Avenue, Bronx, NY (map)