Down on bustling Lydig Avenue, just south of Pelham Parkway, lies an Albanian microcosm in one of the city's most diverse neighborhoods. The neighborhood is home to the city's largest Albanian population, many of the new immigrants Muslims from Kosovo. Flanked by sprawling tenement buildings, the commercial strip is concentrated over just six blocks. A Jewish bakery endures; Lydig Coffee House fills the diner niche; and there's one of the city's most famous burek joints.
While Albanian sit-downs, common over in Belmont, are absent, there a few markets stocked with imported goods. And the European Meat Markets is one of the most rewarding.
Though the store often looks half-shuttered, management advertises "Fresh Buka $2.50" and "Fresh Qebaqa" with makeshift signs posted to the front door. Inside, the shelves are stocked with a variety of Avjar sauces, chocolates, noodles, teas, and other goods to nurture homesick hearts. Bread (buka) is delivered daily from Stamford's Gleenbrook Bakery and the shop carries a selection of cured meats from Ridgewood's Forest Pork Store. The best products the store has to offer, however, are homemade: veal jerky, shuxhik shtepie ($8.50 per pound), and qebapa ($6.50 per pound).
Sold in slabs, the smoked veal—or "dry meat"—is their crowning achievement. Described by manager Tony Hili as "very natural," its flavor derives from two basic principles: smoke and salt. The first chew yields the flavors imparted from the wood chips, so strong as to remind you of nights spent around the fire pit. The interior is undeniably tender, almost as soft as raw meat but without any of the squishiness, and the pink color gives it a glean not unlike candied meat. Then the saltiness follows. Over time, the veal ripens to a pitch black, becoming in turn a much tougher adversary. Best when cut into thin slivers, it pairs well with lagers and makes for an excellent appetizer.
Their qebaqa, related to the better known cevapi, are small cigars of minced meat. The preparation varies by store and household. A blend of beef and lamb (15-20% depending on the batch), his are seasoned with salt, black and white pepper, and onions. The lamb explains the funky smell when raw, but adds a welcome lightness. The consistency is smooth, without irregular chunks of onion, as is the flavor: fresh and unobstructed. They're traditionally grilled, but frying develops a great crust.
Bringing you back out of the kitchen is their shuxtik shtepie, available in medium or spicy. The latter is somewhat unevenly spiced, and the heat isn't particularly powerful. But though my least favorite of three, it's still a solid choice. While the veal jerky is minimalist in preparation, their shuxtik is more complex: factoring in salt, pepper, paprika, and popular brand Vegeta's dodatak jelim seasoning. In this premade mix: salt, dehydrated vegetables (carrot, parsnip, onion, potato, celery, parsley leaves), MSG, sugar, cornstarch, black peeper, nutmeg, and a few chemical compounds. The paprika and aforementioned seasoning stand out, producing a sweet and varied flavor, but it lacks the clarity of the others.
A small selection of European cheeses is available as well, including a standout imported Bulgarian feta ($4.50 a pound; sirine or white cheese). In the hands of a native, a 2-pound block didn't survive the night. Unlike other feta, sirine, firm and moist, is meant to be eaten in slabs. Initially smooth, this quickly gives way to an assertive, acidic pungency that hums in the far reaches of your mouth for a blast of sour, tart flavor.
While on Lydig, you'd be wise to skip over to Dukagjini Burektorja for a soothing shot of espresso and some flaky, nourishing Albanian burek ($4). Layers of phyllo--dry on the exterior, moist on the inside--filled with spinach, beef, or cheese are meant to be dipped in tangy yogurt ($1.50) that will tide you over no matter how long your journey. Just save some room for veal nibbling, too.
European Meat Markets
720 Lydig Avenue, Bronx NY 10462 (map) 718-741-9100 Monday-Sunday 9:30-8:00 PM