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Restaurants | Authentic Ethnic

March 08, 2001|CHARLES PERRY | TIMES STAFF WRITER

If you felt like having Armenian food 20 years ago, you probably headed to Pasadena. There was a cluster of Armenian restaurants with names like Kabakian's, Sayat Nova and Gypsy.

They served the familiar eastern Mediterranean cuisine: hummus, tabbouleh, stuffed grape leaves, baklava. Often a dash of red pepper on the shish kebab was the only tip-off that you weren't eating in a Lebanese restaurant.

They were run by western Armenians, descendants of refugees from the early 20th century massacres in what is now western Turkey. Their cuisine had a lot in common with Syrian and Lebanese food to begin with. On top of that, most western Armenian families had lived in Syria or Lebanon for a generation or more before coming to this country.

Beginning in the late '80s, there was a new influx of Armenian immigrants to Southern California, and many settled in Glendale. These days Colorado Street is crowded with Armenian businesses from Glendale Avenue to Verdugo Road, and so is Glendale Avenue between Colorado and Los Feliz Road. There's another cluster on Central Avenue near St. Mary's Armenian Apostolic Church.

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This is our new capital of Armenian cuisine. It's home to 11 Armenian restaurants of one description or another, six retail bakeries (more, if you count a wholesale Armenian bakery and several Armenian-run French bakeries), five banquet halls for private parties and more Armenian delis and markets than you can shake a stick at.

The Armenian presence is so strong in the neighborhood that other Middle Eastern food businesses reach out to Armenian customers. Baklawa Palace, at 801 S. Glendale Ave., is Lebanese-owned, but its signage carefully mentions Armenian pastries among the attractions. Andre's Restaurant, at 1321 E. Colorado St., Unit E, is an Armenian-owned Persian restaurant, complete with romantic Persian murals on the walls and ghormeh sabzi on the menu, but it does offers an Armenian pork kebab (left decently untranslated on the Persian side of the menu).

Most of the newcomers came from the former Republic of Armenia or neighboring Georgia or Azerbaijan, and their cuisine is more like Persian than Lebanese. Kebabs always come with a grilled tomato, a grilled pepper and a huge mound of rice, usually topped with some grains colored yellow or orange with saffron or turmeric. What always makes it clear you're eating in an Armenian and not a Persian restaurant is the use of pork, which Muslims are forbidden to eat. Some of these places also offer dishes from the Caucasus, such as the Georgian cheese bread khachapuri or the sack-shaped meat ravioli called khinkal.

So this is not entirely the Armenian cuisine Angelenos are familiar with. A number of restaurants in the neighborhood (and all the bakeries) are in the familiar Lebanese-like mode, and there's a certain amount of fusion between the western and eastern styles, but be prepared: Most Glendale Armenian restaurants give you swatches of lavash bread rather than pita and some don't even bother to serve tabbouleh.

With three tables and eight chairs, Mini Kabob comes by its name honestly (it offers takeout and delivers in the neighborhood). It's also rather inconspicuous, just off Central Avenue, and hasn't much decor except a wall clock shaped like a wristwatch. But the menu is larger than you'd expect and includes chicken schnitzel, chicken Kiev and quail, as well as the usual beef, lamb, chicken and pork kebabs. The red meat items have a dash of sweet spices; from their tenderness and tang, it seems the chicken kebabs have been marinated in yogurt. Kebabs come with hummus and salad as well as rice or fries, grilled tomato and grilled pepper (here a jalapeno).

Right across Central, Kabob Land also looks like a humble place--from the outside. Inside, it's decorated like a French restaurant, complete with a print of the Arc de Triomphe in a gilt frame, though you'll hear way more of the muscular, deliberate rhythms of Armenian here than of French. The menu is cosmopolitan: Persian and Lebanese salads and appetizers, Greek gyros, a Russian meat and sour cream salad, barbecued sturgeon, khinkal (here spelled khingali; $1 apiece, six to an order) and a beef heart and liver kebab. The Armenian yogurt soup sepas (accent on the second syllable), enriched with a little barley and flavored with mint and cilantro, is equally good hot and cold. The meaty kebabs have a subtle, faintly peppery marinade.

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Next door is Panos Pastry, a branch of the famous Panos in Hollywood that was originally established in Beirut in 1951. It makes high-quality baklava and similar pastries, but here the emphasis is on a huge variety of cakes and petits fours.

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