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RESTAURANT REVIEW : Feasting the Armenian Way : Varouj's Kabobs has grilling down to an art, and complements its meats with an array of ethnic specialties.

June 02, 1995|MAX JACOBSON | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES; Max Jacobson reviews restaurants every Friday in Valley Life!

GLENDALE — Varouj's Kabobs used to be a bakery called Sarkis Pastry, but now this homey little spot pre pares some of the best-tasting grilled meats anywhere in Los Angeles County.

The restaurant is near the recently arisen hub of the local Armenian community, the busy intersection of Glendale Avenue and Chevy Chase Drive. Next door to Varouj's is a produce market, and behind that an Armenian dance studio. Directly across the street, at the new mini-mall called Sarkis Plaza, you'll spot the new, greatly enlarged Sarkis Pastry, which some call the best Armenian bakery around.

Rest easy, there is a Varouj. He is Varouj Koukjian, a huge, mustachioed man who takes up a good deal of the space in his pint-sized cafe.

Appointments are modest to a fault: glass-topped tables, paper napkins, sentimental posters of Beirut (Koukjian's home turf) and a large deli counter well stocked with various mineral waters. "Armenians like their mineral water," Koukjian says.

They like a whole lot besides water; I earnestly advise you not to come to an Armenian restaurant unless you're good and hungry. A Lebanese-Armenian meal, which is what you get here, is like a sultan's feast. It begins with traditional mezzeh (assorted appetizers), progresses to meaty kebabs, buttery rice and broiled vegetables, and ends up with sticky-sweet pastries and demitasses of Armenian coffee.

Koukjian begins filling your table before you have a chance to open his menu. Out comes a parade of small plates--ripe olives, cubes of feta cheese and peeled, sliced cucumber on one, pickled turnips and peppers on another. Then come four cylindrical rice-stuffed grape leaves, as well as tabbouleh salad and three dips: hummus, mutabbal and the unique walnut caviar known as muhammara .

The tabbouleh is simply the best I've had, the flavor dominated by incredibly fresh parsley and good chopped tomatoes. Most places seem to overload this salad with bulgur wheat, apparently throwing in the parsley toward the end for a splash of color. Here, the crunchy pearls of wheat are basically used to add texture to a very green salad.

Hummus is the familiar dip of garbanzo paste flavored with sesame, garlic and lemon; mutabbal applies the same flavorings to smoky roasted eggplant. The powerful muhammara is a dip made from bread crumbs and walnuts ground in a mortar and flavored with pomegranate juice and a bit of hot pepper; it may be an acquired taste. All three are great schmears for warm triangles of pita bread.

Chez Varouj considers these to be pre- appetizers. The real appetizers are found on the left half of this menu. One is the light and delicious cheese bread, which is simply grilled pita filled with a creamy white cheese and pungent spices. Arayes is kin to the keema naan found in most Indian restaurants. It's grilled pita covered with a thin layer of minced beef and plump, toasted pine nuts. Kufta are addictive golden spheroids of bulgur wheat, stuffed with spiced minced beef and more toasted pine nuts.

Finally there is chikufta , a concoction of raw beef pounded with bulgur wheat. Chikufta is too bland to be steak tartare, and not nearly as gamy as kibbeh nayyeh , the lamb-based Lebanese equivalent of this dish.

The grilled quail are crisp on the outside, juicy in the center, the skins crackling with a mysterious mixture of sweet spices--and an incredible steal at $3 apiece. The best of the red meats is unquestionably choepleh , four tiny, ultra-tender lamb chops that come up from the grill in Halloween colors, black from charcoal and with streaks of bright reddish orange, probably from a pomegranate-based marinade.

The mildly spiced, cylindrically formed luleh kebab puts the versions I've had in local Persian restaurants to shame. It's little more than an Armenian hamburger, but masterfully meaty and perfectly grilled. The beef shish kebab is remarkably tender, the chicken kebab moist and flavorful.

Order any of these generously sized kebabs and Koukjian throws in rice, mezzeh and blackened tomatoes free. Restrict yourself to quail or appetizers, and you will probably be charged $5 per person for the mezzeh .

Koukjian also serves a mean soorj , mild, medium or strong Near Eastern-style coffee. The only pastry is baklava, and even then he often runs out. Not to worry, you can always bring something over from Sarkis Pastry. Koukjian isn't likely to make a ruckus. The pastry shop belongs to his cousin.

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WHERE AND WHEN

Location: Varouj's Kabobs, 1110 S. Glendale Ave., Glendale.

Suggested Dishes: cheese bread, $6; arayes , $6; trchoan (quail) $3; choepleh (lamb chops), $12.

Hours: Lunch and dinner 11 a.m. to 10 p.m. Tuesday to Saturday, noon to 8 p.m. Sunday.

Price: Dinner for two, $22 to $35. No alcohol. Parking lot. Cash only.

Call: (818) 243-9870.

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