Before Shaunt Adessian opened Shanto's Bakery in La Crescenta, he traveled thousands of miles from Los Angeles, arriving in Lebanon to discover the Levantine culinary methods and delights his parents grew up with. Except he was looking for the likes of baked manakish bread bubbling with za'atar and olive oil in Beirut, and the famous esfiha meat pies made with ground beef and spices of Baalbek, not the cupcakes and cookies that have evolved as classic American bakery fare.
Working in bakeries, he learned traditional Middle Eastern recipes, developed over the heat of ovens, that have come to define a culture that celebrates, mourns and passes time with food. When he landed back in Los Angeles, it took him a year to finalize the menu and open up shop.
Now in its sixth month, Shanto's Bakery stands as a culinary and cultural portal into Beirut, a city that's often hailed as the "Paris of the Middle East," where food and passion run side by side, and often intertwine.
"I never wanted to take street food and make it glamorous or high end or anything like that, because it's not," says Adessian, "but I wanted to take it and twist it around and kind of modernize it."
And modernize he did, taking patata harra, a spicy potato side dish and packaging it in fresh baked pita bread with garlic sauce, tahini and vegetables. He spread shredded chicken breast over cheese sprinkled with za'atar, turning it into one of the bakery's most popular dishes. He even included some nostalgia in the form of bananas doused in warm Nutella wrapped in pita bread -- a typical breakfast children in Lebanon would eat on their way to school.
After spending years with experienced bakers and food makers in Lebanon, Adessian realized that the fast-food philosophy used by businesses back in L.A. to meet the demands of convenience was ruining taste as well as tradition.
"In L.A. everyone goes to buy lahmajoun, manakish, cheese pies, spinach pies, lamb pies and it's like everything comes in a bag and everything is sold by the dozen and pre-made," says Adessian. "There's no such thing in Lebanon. Nothing is pre-made, nothing is sitting on a counter ready for you to pick up."
With the sound Lebanese pop stars and live European soccer matches in the background, Shanto's Bakery has become a gastronomical pitstop, making it stand out in a city with decades old Middle Eastern bakery businesses sometimes unreceptive to change.
Brian Hayes, a shift supervisor at Starbucks just two doors down ate at Shanto's when it first opened. Now, he's steadily working his way through the menu and regularly sends customers looking for something new to try in the area over to Adessian.
"It feels like a tiny little bit like Lebanon," said Hayes. "It's always nice to walk into a place and feel that almost like you're stepping into another world, just briefly."
But working to replicate the authentic taste of Beirut has come at a price. "I end up losing a lot of customers because I don't have a dozen lahmajoun ready and people don't want to wait 5 minutes for a fresh batch," Adessian says, adding that loss doesn't bother him.
"I'm not going to sell out for the sake of money. I'm not going to bag my stuff and sell it. I'm happy in what I'm doing." While Adessian recently introduced spinach and cheese pies known as fatayer, he soaked in lemon juice for 30 hours before encasing it in dough.
When customers began asking for knefe, a Middle Eastern decadent dessert made with shredded dough and enough butter to please the likes of Paula Deen, Adessian didn't want to sell it without perfecting it first. He's been working on the recipe for three months behind closed doors to get it just right.
Adessian recently ordered a Saj oven, a convex metal disc ritually used in baking bread, that has taken six months to make and will arrive from Lebanon at the end of the month.
The long hours behind the oven and penchant for perfectionism have taken a toll on Adessian. The baker has even developed carpel tunnel syndrome. "It's tough," Adessian says. "You're on your feet for 15 hours a day. Your knees go to shit. Your hands turn into leather. It's not Top Chef."
Even with the physical challenges, Adessian remains devoted to the little slice of Beirut he's carved out. He regularly draws inspiration from the enthusiasm of his devoted customer base, especially those familiar with the tastes he's trying to replicate. "When I get someone that comes from Lebanon and says 'this tastes like Lebanon,' it gives me that motivation to keep going."
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Shanto's Bakery: 3747 Foothill Blvd., La Crescenta; 818-330-9835; www.shantosbakery.com.