Opening a deli was the last thing Karine Hajian expected to do after retiring from a 40-year nursing career at the age of 73. But boredom, a desire to meet new people, and an empty storefront next to her husband George’s Los Alamitos antique shop led her to begin a new career right after finishing up the last. Hajian was originally hoping to open Borsh Deli in early 2020, but then the pandemic hit. Over the next two years, she continued to pay rent on the space and tinker with recipes before finally opening in April 2022.
Upon entering the deli, customers are transported to Eastern Europe: The shop’s walls are lined with jams, pickles, and candies from Armenia, the Czech Republic, and Poland, while a freezer next to the register is stocked with frozen pelmeni dumplings. Hajian begins daily preparations at the restaurant as early as 6 a.m. to ensure the deli case is fully stocked with soups, salads, and cabbage rolls before the doors open at 11 a.m. “We don’t have a lot of fridge or freezer space, so almost everything gets made daily,” she says. “I’m definitely not bored anymore.”
Hajian operates the takeout restaurant primarily alone, with occasional support from her husband and son. “Coming from years spent as a nurse, I was prepared for hard work,” says Hajian. “When we opened, we had no chef, no dishwasher — I was, and mostly still am doing it all myself, with one additional hired staff member.”
Growing up in Soviet Armenia until she immigrated to the United States in 1973, Hajian learned to cook with her Azerbaijan-born grandmother. She developed the recipes that would later make up the menu for Borsh Deli during those early years, perfecting her cabbage roll wrapping and piroshki bun stuffing over another 50 years of cooking for her own family, which includes two children and two grandchildren. “The food I made for my children was the food I ate as a child,” she says. “Now, it is the same food I get to share with my community.”
Hajian describes the food at Borsh Deli as “cold country fare” — hearty, filling, and true to her Armenian upbringing. “Cooking, for me, is a story,” she says. “It’s not just the dish itself, but the entire process of making it. The ingredients, the techniques, and even the pots and pans.”
Hajian’s cabbage rolls begin with green cabbage leaves that are steamed until tender and delicately wrapped around a filling of ground beef, rice, and fresh parsley. The sizable rolls — one is considered a full serving — are then simmered in a tomato sauce for hours until cooked through; a heavy ceramic plate assures that the rolls are fully submerged during the process. Cutting into a fresh cabbage roll brings a cloud of steam, which reveals a juicy meat and rice filling that spills out of the tomato-scented cabbage leaf. “It’s very labor-intensive work, but one that brings me home,” Hajian says.
Hajian’s signature dish is her cold beet borscht, which begins with a beef bone broth that is made a day in advance. Once the stock has enough flavor, red beets, cabbage, kale, celery, carrot, onion, and handfuls of fresh dill are added in. Each order of borscht is served with a side of sour cream, which Hajian suggests putting on top of the soup to contrast the beets’ sweetness. A vegetable-based stock is available for vegan and vegetarian customers.
Aside from classic Eastern European dishes like cabbage rolls, stalichni salad (potato salad with hard-boiled eggs and dill), and beef stroganoff, Hajian also serves dishes that George, who is from Lebanon, grew up eating.
“I wanted to put hummus on the menu, but my husband requested his mother’s tabbouleh,” she says. Having never made tabbouleh before, Hajian learned from friends and family what size bulgur to use, how much parsley to include (“more than you’d expect”), and, per George, the necessary addition of cucumber. Both George and Karine grew up eating stuffed grape leaves (dolmas), as it is a part of both Lebanese and Armenian cuisines. The dolmas at Borsh Deli include a touch of pomegranate molasses for a slight sweet-and-sour taste. Most days, George sits in the corner of the deli eating a lunch of tabbouleh and fried chicken cutlet.
The warmth emanating from Borsh Deli can be felt in more than just the cooking. Whether it’s locals stopping by to get a familiar taste of home or curious newcomers trying borscht for the first time, Karine, George, or her son Ari greets every customer with a smile, hug, and oversized plate of food. “My family has been a part of the Los Alamitos/Long Beach community for years,” says Karine. “Now I can share our food with the community, too.”