Keeping a warm legacy alive
Their backgrounds are more burrito than boreg.
So how did a pair of childhood buddies from Zacatecas, Mexico, turn into two of Los Angeles’ most popular Armenian bakers?
On West Adams Boulevard, Francisco Rosales and Jose Gonzales did it by adopting Leon Partamian’s family recipes -- and then getting “adopted” by Partamian themselves.
The crusty owner of the 60-year-old A. Partamian Bakery in the Mid-City area liked the way they cooked his sarma and lahmajune. And he liked the two of them.
So when Partamian died 17 months ago, he gave his bakery business -- and the building that houses its vintage ovens and bread display cases -- to both of them.
Partamian’s gift has brought a sigh of relief to longtime Armenian American customers who feared that the weathered storefront bakery would be shuttered and used for something else in a neighborhood that in recent decades has turned from white to black and now brown.
“This is the best lahmajune anywhere. It is the absolute best,” said Gail Deovlet Chancellor, 62, a homemaker who lives in Huntington Beach and travels to the bakery to shop. “It took me an hour and 15 minutes to drive here. But it’s worth it.”
Like most of Leon Partamian’s longtime customers, Chancellor knew of the shopkeeper’s desire to eventually pass the bakery on to his two loyal bakers. He had never married and had no children.
“After we’d been working with him 20 or 25 years he was telling customers that he was going to leave the store to his ‘boys’ when he was gone,” Rosales said.
Partamian had quickly taken his two young bakers under his wing. He helped them obtain green cards and with other family immigration issues. He loaned them money when his “boys” had an emergency.
But Partamian left no written will when in late 2006 he died unexpectedly at age 73 of a heart attack. It took more than a year for his heirs to wade through probate paperwork so they could sign over the business and its building to Rosales and Gonzales, both 56.
Rosales immigrated to the U.S. in 1969 and Gonzales in 1971. They were dishwashers in a Bob’s Big Boy restaurant in 1975 when they were introduced to Partamian. He offered them both jobs.
It took about six months for the pair to learn how to craft the delicacies that Partamian was famous for: the boreg, paklava, sarma and the lahmajune -- the eight-inch circles of dough topped with ground lamb, tomatoes and bell peppers and cooked in a 450-degree oven.
“It was not hard for us. We learned very fast. The recipes are a little complicated. Leon showed us how much pepper and garlic and other spices to use,” Rosales remembers. “We use black pepper and garlic in Mexico, but not black nigella and mahlab. I never saw that in Mexico.
“I grew up with tamales and tacos. But when I tried Armenian food I liked it. And Leon was such a nice man.”
It didn’t take long after starting with Partamian for Gonzales and Rosales to learn that the A. Partamian Bakery was best known for its lahmajune, with customers coming from across the Los Angeles basin and San Fernando Valley for the little lamb pies some call Armenian pizzas.
They soon found themselves baking around 500 of them a day. At Christmas and on other holidays, when lahmajune is reheated, sliced into wedges and served as party appetizers, that number soared to nearly 1,000, according to Gonzales.
Soon, Partamian was referring to his two young bakers as “my boys” and gave some of their family members jobs in the bakery.
Rosales’ son, Raul, now an LAX garage attendant, worked there as a teenager. “Our kids called Leon ‘Grandpa,’ ” said his wife, Mirna Vargas, of daughters Crystal, 9, and Viviane, 5.
Vargas occasionally helped at the bakery before giving birth nine months ago to son Robert Rosales.
The two Mexican bakers never learned to speak Armenian. But that was no problem, since Armenian shoppers all spoke English. Gonzales and Rosales quickly learned the names of the Armenian baked goods that each day filled Partamian’s shelves. The first name they learned was lahmajune.
The little pizzas were always the little shop’s big draw.
“I’ve been coming here since I was a little girl, probably about 7, for my lahmajune,” said Myrna Suttice, 47, a caterer who lives in the Fairfax District.
She is not of Armenian descent, but the lamb pies were popular snacks for youngsters growing up in the Mid-City neighborhood, Suttice said. Partamian knew all the children by name and asked to see their report cards. Good grades earned them free bakery treats.
“I was so glad when Leon handed this place down and it didn’t get closed,” Suttice said.
So was Audrey Hovsepian. The Ladera Heights septuagenarian had known members of the Partamian family for decades.
“Mr. Partamian was a very kind man. He’d bring his mother to St. James Armenian Apostolic Church in a wheelchair when she got older. We all knew his plan was to leave the bakery to his ‘boys.’ We just didn’t know he hadn’t written it down.”
Partamian’s niece, Norma Kurkjian, said there was never any doubt the family would honor his wishes.
He had made it clear he wanted Rosales and Gonzales to continue, she said.
Kurkjian, a retired teacher who lives in Northridge, said some advised the family to sell the business. The property at 5410 W. Adams Blvd. was appraised for about $500,000, she said.
“But he wanted the bakery to go to the ‘boys’ because they were loyal to him for 35 years and they bake authentically. He wanted them to have financial security.”
Still, though, “it’s hysterical to go in and see these two Mexican men making grape leaf and sou boreg. It’s such a hoot.”
Rosales and Gonzales live with their families several blocks from the bakery. Since Partamian’s death, they have worked 12-hour days, six days a week, without a vacation.
Partamian’s death was a shock, according to the pair. “He left the store on Saturday and never came back on Monday,” said Rosales.
Partamian’s legacy is a good one, agreed Chancellor, whose parents held her by the hand the first time she stepped inside the tiny shop and peered into the display case at the stacks of freshly baked lahmajune.
Her parents, Dewey and Gladys Deovlet, were Armenian immigrants who dropped the “ian” from Deovletian so they could more easily find jobs. They were customers when Abraham Partamian opened the bakery in 1948.
Abraham Partamian’s sons, Charles and Leon, worked there, helping him and their mother, Victoria, bake peda bread and meat boreg, a turnover filled with ground lamb, and lahmajune.
When his parents died, Leon Partamian took over the bakery.
“Mr. Partamian was always ‘Mr.’ Partamian. That was the way we addressed him. We never used first names,” Chancellor said.
She looked at photos of Partamian and mementos of his life that Gonzales and Rosales display above the shop’s front counter.
“Mr. Partamian was much loved,” she said.
And on West Adams Boulevard, two loyal employees know that better than anyone.