Despite Garo’s passing nine years ago, this 23-year-old Armenian deli in northeast Pasadena is more successful than ever, producing 2000 pounds of cured, dried and spiced beef every week. Two big reasons for the basturma bastion’s continued success: the efforts of Garo’s widow, Marguerite Ilanjian, to keep her husband’s legacy alive, and a secret recipe.
After walking by aisles of Armenian groceries, I arrived at the deli case, which was stocked with meats, cheeses, house-made pickles, and of course, plenty of basturma.
I met Edgar Torres, a 10-year Garo’s veteran who was slicing foot-long slabs of basturma, which were all coated with a reddish-orange spice rub. After handing me a hair net and white lab coat, Edgar was kind enough to lead me on a tour of the stainless steel basturma production facility in back.
He opened the door to a fridge and pulled back a cover, revealing a tub of covered New York strip steaks, marinating in salt and nitrates. The meat marinates for 10 days, a time limit set by the USDA.
After getting washed with water, to rinse excess salt off, the beef hangs from hooks in a muggy room for 24 hours, which is kept at 90 degrees to dry the meat. The smell was pungent.
The beef is then oven-heat treated until the internal temperature reaches 127 degrees.
The team applies chaman, an Armenian spice paste that has been prepared by Sabu Beuybushein for all 23 years. He’s the only one who knows the recipe for the secret spice mixture. The label admits to water, flour fenugreek, cumin, black pepper, garlic powder, paprika and salt, but there are other ingredients.
The team waits until the meat contains 0.92% water. Then it hangs from hooks, ready to eat.
After being pulled from the hook, the slabs are stacked on a stainless steel counter behind the deli case, waiting to be ordered, sliced and sold.
Sliced basturma features a two-millimeter thick layer of spice crust and is pleasantly chewy, with explosive flavor, and a powerful odor.
When I asked Sabu to explain the difference between basturma with “Smell” and “No Smell,” he pointed to his armpits and said, “Fenugreek.” Surprisingly, “Basturma” costs only $7.99 per pound, and “Basturma No Smell” runs $8.99.
Soujouk ($5.99 per pound) is another Garo’s specialty, Armenian sausage processed with different ingredients and stuffed within a day. According to the label, the ingredients are “beef, spices, water, salt, sugar, nonfat dry milk, garlic powder, paprika and sodium nitrite.” Edgar claimed it was fine to eat raw, so I did. It was a little strange eating cold sausage, but the flavor was terrific.
Later, I looked at the soujouk label, which read “Semi-dried raw sausage cook before consumption.” Raw? Cook before consumption? Maybe I should have waited until getting home to “Cook thoroughly” and “Slice thin, cook in hot skillet for 30 seconds on each side.”
I wish I could say that basturma a lost art, but Edgar said, “Ten years ago, there were two factories making basturma, now there are 20.” Still, compared to the two other versions of basturma I’ve eaten, Garo’s is clearly superior, and well worth a trip to Pasadena.