BELMONT — In the Janessian family, they say that when you are in an Armenian house, you are in Armenia. And they want the same to hold true at their business, Ani Takeout. The newly opened storefront at times can be a full cultural immersion experience, with Armenian music playing, the TV showing an Armenian video, but always there is the food: juicy lamb, thick hummus, buttery pilaf.
“This is the authentic, this is not makeshift,” says owner Hovannes Janessian. “This is the real stuff, the real thing — the spices that we use, the way we prepare it.”
Ani specializes in Armenian and Middle Eastern dishes, and Janessian says his customers, many of whom are expats from Armenia and the Middle East, keep his cooking up to the mark. “They know the food, they know what it should be,” he says.
But he also knows. Ethnically Armenian, a son of deportees, Janessian was born and raised in Syria and educated as an economist; he left in 1979. After nine years in Saudi Arabia working in telecommunications, he felt the squeeze of religious tensions (the Janessians are Christian) and moved his family to the United States in 1988.
He and his wife, Ani, for whom their business is named, began catering on weekends in 1991. “My wife is a great cook,” he says. But she didn’t necessarily want to spend time in the kitchen. “When we married, she didn’t make more than coffee.” Ani learned how to cook from phone calls to her mother-in-law, and in turn she taught her husband. When Janessian was laid off from his job in sales management in 2005, he turned to full-time catering.
The idea for a takeout shop came from customers who wanted to have Ani’s food without catering an entire event (Janessian says he would have preferred a restaurant with seating, but he couldn’t get permitting from the town). So far, with no advertising beyond the “Coming Soon” banner that hung before it opened, business has been good.
“We opened May 5 at 11 o’clock. At 11:06, the first customer walked in,” says Janessian. “She said, ‘I’ve been waiting for this sign to come down.’ ”
Janessian works in the shop with his younger son, Ari, 24, who studied international relations at Suffolk University (his older son is a radiology technician) and a floating crew who help with takeout and catering as needed. (Ani remains involved in the catering business.)
The takeout case is filled with vegetarian options: tabbouleh, wheat salad, chickpea salad, eggplant pomegranate with Janessian’s homemade pomegranate molasses (the shop logo is a pomegranate, with a silhouette of Mount Ararat in it), and homemade baklava. Hot, cooked-to-order plates and sandwiches include kebabs, kofte, and falafel. Janessian hopes to put a favorite boneless chicken thigh dish on the menu by fall.
Both he and Ari single out the shawarma as their best-selling item. The spice blend in the marinade includes cumin, nutmeg, sumac, allspice — “spices that that corner of the world uses,” says Hovannes Janessian — but he won’t reveal the rest of the recipe.
“Everyone goes for the shawarma,” says Ari. “When I have a nice hot shawarma off the press, honestly I’d take it over ice cream.”
Janessian visits Syria and Armenia every few years, studying restaurant menus and learning new techniques from chefs. “Armenians will give other Armenians recipes,” he says. What he learns he brings back not just for his customers, but for his children.
“We’re one of the most culturally attached ethnicities out there. Everything we do around here, the community organizations, the food, we do because we’re literally in love with our culture,” says Ari. “Because we’re not living there, this is what we would eat there.”
Ani Takeout 687 Belmont St., Belmont, 617-484-6161, www.anicatering.com.