Armenians have come to the United States in waves over the last 150 years. Many of the early immigrants settled in New York City, but since the break-up of the Soviet Union the real magnet has been the Los Angeles area, now home to about 70,000 Armenian-born Americans. Today, New York is home to a few thousand Armenians, mostly in Queens and Brooklyn, enough to support one restaurant (Sevan in Queens) and one bakery. Wherever the Armenian diaspora travels, it brings its baking traditions, particularly the flatbread staple called lavash.
"Everybody that's Armenian eats lavash," says Samson Badalyan.
Samson and his father (who's also his business partner) weren't bakers before they came to New York. When they arrived here, the only lavash they could find was the industrially-baked product that had been shipped here frozen from the big Armenian bakeries of Southern California. They missed the taste of fresh-baked lavash, which Samson's grandmother had baked in her brick oven back in Armenia. In their Brooklyn backyard, they built an oven and experimented until they'd perfected their technique. In 2010, they opened Brooklyn Bread House on Jerome Avenue, a few blocks from the Sheepshead Bay subway station.
Brooklyn Bread House produces a few Russian loaves and also the suddenly-trendy Georgian shoti and khachapuri. But the real star of the store is lavash. This is a large, paper-thin sheet of bread shaped something like a football that's been run over with a steamroller. The ingredients are simply white flour, water, and salt. After it's rolled out, the sheets of dough are slapped against the wall of a brick tandoor and baked for 30 or 40 seconds, until the surface is ever so slightly blistered. You can either eat it fresh or dried out, so it breaks into crisp crumbs. In either case, it's so delicate that it almost melts in your mouth, with a faint flour flavor. According to Samson, lavash is the staple of nearly every Armenian meal, perfect for wrapping meat, cheese, and vegetables or just eating by itself.
Beyond lavash, Brooklyn Bread House makes Russian-style layer cakes, Armenian-style baklava and other sweets, and lahmajun ($1.50), which is a kind of thin Armenian pizza. From a similar dough as the lavash, the bakers make a round flatbread and spread it with a paste made from ground beef, onion, tomato, and spices. You can either it as an appetizer or a not-too-filling snack.
In addition to the retail bakery, the Badalyans also own a commercial bakery where they produce lavash under the "Samson" brand name for sale through many South Brooklyn markets, including Brighton Bazaar.