Walk a few blocks north of Queens Boulevard in Forest Hills and you'll find a small enclave of Middle Eastern, Russian, and Kosher markets and eateries. The corner of 108th Street and 64th Road is much like the rest of that stretch, save for the green and white awning printed with: "fresh roasted coffee, done on premises."
Look closer and you'll notice, in the window, brightly painted signs advertising dried fruits and nuts, homemade salads, and more. Welcome to Carmel, a tiny but wonderfully stocked Middle Eastern grocery. The products are fresh, the staff is friendly, and the affordable prices can't be beat.
Steve Dumanian and his parents bought Carmel Grocery from some Israelis who "didn't want it anymore" in 1983. "Actually" he paused, "my mother was the one who founded the store. At the time, I used to work as a computer technician and would do this at the same time. I would run back and forth." Steve gestured towards his sliver of a store. "We were very slow going on business in the beginning. It took about two years, but then it started picking up." This April they'll celebrate thirty years, and these days you're lucky if you can get in the door when they're busy.
The two years of "down time" was not all bad, either. It enabled Steve to experiment and improve on what Carmel best known for: its prepared foods. "When we started, the store was pretty empty [of people]. I had time, so I would experiment. We got a few recipes from the old owners, but nothing was up to taste. Like the hummus. I am coming from Romania, I am Armenian. I never had hummus in my life. So when [the former owner] made it, I said, 'wow this is so bad, how do people like this thing?' So, over the years, three, four, five years, we improved the hummus quite a bit. I grew up in a household where we always cooked, and I like to cook, I like to mix things up, to explore with food. Slowly, slowly, that's how we got here."
On the Wednesday morning when I visited, the refrigerator case was disappointingly empty, cleared out by shoppers earlier. Steve chuckled, noting my glance at the case. "Come back later today, I will set aside some salads for you. Like the eggplants. Wednesday is a big day for the eggplants. They take almost a whole day. We'll cook about 20 cases of eggplant; around the holidays we'll do up to 30 cases. The eggplants are made special for the weekend; by Sunday they're gone."
Eggplant comes three ways: with onion, with tahini, and "Romanian" style. Steve also makes whitefish salad, white bean dip, Ikra (caviar dip), and bright green hot sauce (that takes a whole case of jalapenos). And, like the best of homemade things, they have a short shelf life: "there are no preservatives, everything is homemade, so they don't last as long."
The refrigerated case holds a few additional choice items—smoked mackerel and caviar; alongside you'll also find sweet cheese, apple and cherry strudel, and spinach, cheese and potato bourekas, hot from the oven. (These come from a local bakery and are baked on the premises as needed.) There are also large blocks of beautifully marbled halva imported from Israel and Turkey.
At the front of the store, sharing a space of honor with Steve's homemade salads, is the other half of Carmel's claim to fame: the coffee roaster. "Six months after opening the store we brought the coffee machine and the coffee roaster. We roast quite a bit, it's used almost daily."
"We roast 25 pounds at a time. You come Friday, Saturday, the machine goes nonstop. We get beans from all over the world—Brazil, Columbian—everything is roasted in the store. Compared to other coffee houses that are huge compared to us, we buy better beans than them because for us, seven or ten cents more per pound doesn't make a big difference."
You see that commitment to qualify as you walk down the other aisles. Carmel is a perfect spot to buy Middle Eastern staples in bulk. The window overlooking 108th street is lined with glass jars filled with every manner of dried fruits and nuts—sour plums and dried pears, roasted sunflower and squash seeds, hazelnuts. "We're very picky, we're very careful with what we bring in" explained Steve. "The roasted nuts are fresh within three days; we get between one and two deliveries a week of the nuts."
Carmel carries lots of others things in bulk, too. There's a good olive bar, and clear plastic tubs along the aisles are filled with red and regular lentils, basmati and short grain rice, chickpeas (raw, white, roasted and salted), two types of bulgur, shelled wheat, cornmeal, semolina, cannellini beans and fava beans (regular, shelled and small) and an unusual bulk item, dried carob pods.
The narrow shelves are crammed (neatly!) with brightly colored packages: pickled okra and Middle Eastern spice mixes, chocolate coated wafers, bags of Bissli, Bamba, and imported candies. A large section is given over to good breads to accompany the homemade salads: three brands of pita, including fluffy pita from Queen's Pita Bakery, sliced loaves from Brooklyn Kosher Bakery, and sesame rings from Mehadrin Kosher Bakery. (Given Carmel's history, location, and immediate clientele, many of their products are kosher.)
I asked Steve for recommendations on what to take home, and he couldn't settle on just one. "I was born with the eggplant with onions," he laughed, "but right now I have no more favorites! I love the eggplant with tahini, which I never did before, because we've improved the recipe so much." So I picked up the four they still had on hand (no eggplants, unfortunately). Needless to say, they didn't last long.