Any reservations I had about recommending Elena's disappeared the minute I tasted the food. And the more of her simple home-style cooking I sampled, the more enthusiastic I became.
This tiny Greek-Armenian restaurant has been at the corner of Glendale Avenue and Arcadia Street for six years. Not having been to Greece, I can only rely on the word of friends who say Elena's reminds them of many small, moderately priced restaurants in that country.
There are two front doors to the restaurant. On the first visit I started into the one on the right, but finding myself in the kitchen, decided to go back out and try the other. As it turns out, most people enter through the kitchen whether they're eating at the restaurant or picking up a take-out order.
The door on the left, however, leads directly into the garden-style dining area. The decor is casual--mismatched chairs surrounding tables covered with red-and-white-checked oilcloth. Mementos collected by the owners and vases of plastic flowers adorn the walls, beamed ceiling and tables. Green indoor-outdoor carpeting also contributes to the outdoor feeling. Despite no air-conditioning, even on hot summer days the room remained cool.
Each visit we seemed to gravitate to a table in the center of the room, where we could watch Elena in the kitchen. She's a constant flurry of activity, and when the exhaust system periodically gets overwhelmed from the cooking, smoke fills the kitchen and you view her through a blue-gray haze. The food is served on an assortment of dishes, but they're immaculate, like everything else in the restaurant.
Casual is also an appropriate description for the service. Both Elena and her husband wait tables, but when he's out the back door prepping vegetables and she's busy cooking, it seems perfectly fitting to wander out to the kitchen if you want something, have a question or need your check. This seems to add to the charm rather than being objectionable, perhaps because it conveys the sense you're eating in someone's home--a feeling that seems to grow on subsequent visits.
The falafel sandwich gets our top rating. On the first visit, a friend and I divided it in half, and after taking the first bite, neither of us could stop eating. Between bites we seemed only able to utter pleasurable sounds. The crunchy garbanzo bean patties are fried, then sauced with a creamy, delicate hummus . These, along with sliced tomatoes and lettuce, are tucked inside a huge pita bread.
A salad included with the combination plate was nothing fancy--lettuce, sliced plum tomatoes and slivers of onion--but fresh and flavorful with a well-balanced dressing. When the rest of the meal arrived, my first bite was of the shish kebab. It was tender and succulent, with just enough hint of the marinade. The lulu kebab, well-seasoned homemade sausage on a skewer, and small lamb chop were equally good, as was the rice pilaf. A grilled pepper and tomato rounded out the $7 entree, the most expensive item on the menu and a real bargain.
Stuffed grape leaves with yogurt sauce also got high ratings. Consider a half order as an appetizer, along with the hummus salad which you scoop up with warm pita bread.
The only dessert listed on the menu is baklava, but when service waned on one visit my friend wandered into the kitchen and came back with a kadaif roll, the Middle Eastern shredded dough filled with nuts and sweetened with syrup. It was incredibly good.
Only one dish we sampled, a daily special of chicken soup, was disappointing. Considering it was served the last day before the restaurant closed so the owners could spend a month in Greece, we found it understandable. The restaurant reopened Sept. 25 and as one friend commented, you shouldn't have to worry about it closing again for a long time.
Elena's Greek-Armenian Restaurant, 1000 S. Glendale Ave., Glendale; (818) 241-5730. Open for lunch and dinner Tuesday through Sunday from 11 a.m. to 10 p.m. Reservations accepted. Cash only. Street parking. Entrees from $2 to $7.