At Cakor Restaurant in the Belmont neighborhood of the Bronx, Sultanija Sujak, 55, reigns in her bouffant cap as the soft-spoken guardian of freshly made Albanian dishes and warm Balkan hospitality. In the basement kitchen decorated with earthenware pottery, her baker Sabrea Julich starts the buke misri (cornbread) every morning at 7. Small rounds of white bread, which often do not last until dinner, also head into the oven. Every day they prepare pasul (bean stew) and goulash, with rotating specials such as osso buco and sarma (stuffed cabbage) for Cakor’s panoply of Albanian, Italian, and American cuisines.
Upstairs in the sunlit dining room on East 186th Street and Crescent Avenue, regular patrons know the specials without being told. Most customers are men. They drink red wine or Stella Artois from bottles, wheezing as they break into laughter. They eat in groups of two or four, some in leather jackets, others in track suits. As one man departs, his friend slaps his back and the waiter shakes his hand.
Cakor Restaurant—upstairs and downstairs—gives dimension to the Albanian saying, “The guest shall be welcomed with bread, salt, and heart.”
Immigrants from the Balkan countries—not only Albania, but also Kosovo, Macedonia, Montenegro, and Serbia—have been making their home in the New York area for over five decades. The exodus occurred in two major waves: in the late 1960s and early 1970s, then in the 1990s during the political strife in the region. Almost 10,000 Albanians now live in the Bronx, according to the 2016 American Community Survey, although regional estimates vary widely. Many of these immigrants are clustered in neighborhoods around East Fordham Road close to Cakor Restaurant.
Sultanija Sujak and her husband, Ismet, 62, opened their restaurant six years ago, she says, and named it after the scenic mountain pass between Montenegro and Kosovo. Both Sue, as everyone calls her, and her husband came from Montenegro, she with her parents at eight, he alone at 16. Sue waves away the question of how the two met. But she’s happy to detail the accomplishments of their five children: one daughter getting her master’s in health policy at NYU, another studying psychology at Adelphi, a son in the military for eight years. The other two sons are in the restaurant business—one at the Italian restaurant, Giovanni, near Yankee Stadium and the other, Hajro, 34, now the owner of Cakor, with his partner, Peter Boda, 51.
“I did good. I worked hard,” Sue says.
Hajro, 34, brushes his hand across his nose as he tells of his 20 years as a super middleweight boxer, a “brutal, but fun” career he concluded four years ago. He used to be able to skip rope for a half hour straight. “We work hard and stay disciplined,” he says. Whether he’s talking about boxing or the restaurant business, it’s a sentiment heard often at Cakor.
Like the Sujaks, Boda, 51, is from Montenegro. He came to the U.S. in 1991, fearful of the war in nearby Serbia. “How far away is the fighting? Will it come here? That’s what we were always thinking.” The economy in his beachside town plummeted when tourists became afraid to visit. Today, he owns a hardware store and several other businesses in the Bronx, in addition to investing in Cakor. “We came here to work,” he says as he pounds both fists on the table. “Where else can you find a country where you can grow so fast?”
This ethos seems as much a part of Cakor’s appeal as the Balkan cuisine and the Italian specialties, the latter a favorite of Ismet Sujak, 62, who spent two years in Italy before he arrived in the U.S.
Ardy Vishkunti, 38, who has joined his friend for a late lunch of fried calamari and Porterhouse steak, says, “When I swore for my passport, there were people from 200 countries in the room. That’s why we have such great restaurants in New York. But it’s competitive.” He takes a sip of red wine and expresses admiration for the Sujaks. “They built this all themselves,” he says.
His companion, Bruno Cano, 59, comes to Cakor because everything is made to order. “I hate chain food,” he says. “Fast food is OK for gasoline. But I love the steak here.” At Cakor, he usually doesn’t order the burek, a pastry of flaky dough filled with meat, spinach, or cheese—only because his mother makes it for him.
But burek is a frequent choice of Gani Haxhaj, 59. A widower who lives nearby in Pelham Parkway, he usually comes to Cakor every day after his shift as a lobby attendant on Mulberry Street.
Close to 3 p.m., the restaurant is still half full. A newcomer from Manhattan asks her waiter, Ermond Keta, 25, for recommendations. He came from Albania, where he was an engineer, just six months ago and speaks very little English. But he suggests the shopska salad, also known as Bulgarian salad, made of diced tomatoes, cucumbers, and feta. And when he serves the Cakor Combo—a platter of gofte, Albanian fried meatballs; cevape, little skinless sausages of minced meat; and suxhuk, a dry spicy sausage —he says “Albanian traditional food” with a smile and slight gesture to his heart.
Tags: Albanian food, burek, Cakor Restaurant, restaurants in the Bronx