Smoke over the Aegean
17068 Devonshire St. (west of Balboa, in Northridge)
Phone: 818-366-7573 | map
Why Ocean? Well, it's Mediterranean, and that's about as much explanation as I can offer, and it doesn't matter. It's got its culinary and social head together.
It isn't as confusing as people seem to think; turn into the driveway between Ocean Cafe and Lakeshore Learning Materials, park in the expansive lot in back, and enter in the rear of the building.
The interior is quite nice--butterscotch walls with ornate curtains and a chrome thicket of hookah necks, a banquet hall with a dancefloor--and you might admire it as you pass through all the way up to the front to the big covered patio. It's nicer and breezier, Devonshire isn't that loud, and you won't hear the music blaring inside.
They are attentive with the coals here, bringing red shards to tong atop the tinfoiled shisha bowl. The flavors are well-mixed, subtle yet buzzy. The tall, clean-shirted young man named Mimo will come by to make sure your evening is pleasant.
It's more of a restaurant that has hookah rather than a hookah joint that has food; too often the kitchen of a hookah place is an afterthought, offering hackingly dry koobideh or some familiar fries with dipping sauces, but Ocean's Mediterranean heart comes through.
Small plates will quickly fill every centimeter of your table. Hummus, of course, and labne, a thick, yogurty cream cheese, milk-white and sweet, bookend your appetizers.
I'm hooked on the kibbeh, four lemon-shaped spheroids of bulgur fried golden brown and bubbly; they're juice-saturated with ground beef, browned pine nuts and a wriggle of citrus, and really moist, on par with Skaf's Lebanese in Glendale. I think these will be a habit when coming here. The kibbeh? Yeah, we'll get the kibbeh.
The grape leaves are also deliciously finger-wetting, the leaves holding a thick finger of rice, almost risotto in consistency.
The makanek is fun occasionally, near-black Lebanese sausagettes, dry and scratchy in deameanor but benefiting from a squeeze of lemon or a swipe through some tabbouleh, itself a chopped wet heap of parsley, cucumber, tomato and olive oil without any bulgur.
Intended for large, hungry parties commanding enough tables to accomodate all the plates, there is a honking big platter with six skewers, resting above a mound of short-grain, fluffy rice and beneath curls of white onion and sprinkles of parsley.
The beef is the fight-over feature of this shared experience, aggressively done, browned through but juicy and toothsome. The char is wonderfully crunchy, the rub widely seasoned with a pleasant spice that awakens a few minutes later. The chicken is at the same level of quality, the full flavor of the fowl pulled forth by the grill. Both are as refreshingly moist as everything else. The kafta is quite good but not the champion of the three, blackened and gamy in a good way, threaded with green spices and less heartburn-prone than many koobidehs and bargs I've sampled elsewhere.
It can be as expensive as you want it to be, but we tend to congregate with good friends over beers and a flotilla of plates and a hookah, so we live it up a bit.
Many thanks to Doug and Rosina for introducing us.
( Categories: Cuisines (by Region), The Valley, Armenian, Greek, Lebanese )
I'm a fan of shawerma and kebab and tabouleh and hummus anyway, but the Lebanese touch brings it closer to my heart. This miniature spit-roasted empire now has nearly a double handful of locations, but the original 1984 location is in East Hollywood*.
There is no decor in the Hollywood spot, really, not unless you count violently lemon-colored walls and aluminum, and not much atmosphere except for perpetually grumbling older men and angry conversations in Armenian. The Glendale location on Colorado is the second oldest, and is set up more like a Jack in the Box than a post-war lunch counter.
What Zankou is famous for are the chicken sandwiches, wrapped in a scuffed-up pita, with a thin plaster of highly opinionated garlic sauce. Even as the foil opens up, the scent of garlic wells up. It looks very spartan--shreds of roasted dark-meat chicken, pale squares of chopped tomato, and hints of the white spackle that is the potato-based garlic sauce of which so many poets have written**.
The chicken is usually splendidly done, moist and profound, and the bits of sauce will make you check yourself with a palm over your mouth for the remainder of the day. You get a little dish of carnation-colored pickled turnips and yellow peppers, which you can safely ignore unless you want some extra crunch and spicy hiss (which I do).
The Tarna chicken is marinated chicken shawerma, which is slightly crispier around the edges but not as lush as the roasted chicken. The Sujouk [sic] is dark and rugged and rosy inside like an Armenian/Lebanese sausage can be, but unless you're a big sujouk fan it's not necessary.
The Tri-Tip Shawerma, like the chicken, is infused with its own roasty flavor, dark and juicy. Slicing up the yellow peppers with this, then filling a pita with it, is good times.
The hummus is actually quite good, finely blended with big flakes of paprika. The tahini sauce is thick, sour and a little unfriendly.
* The Sunset location is not part of the website, possibly because of the drama--legal and lethal drama--that occurred with the family. You can look it up if you like. Zankou is quite the L.A. institution.
** Not really. But it's been blogged about a lot.
( Categories: Cuisines (by Region), Hollywood, Glendale/Atwater/Eagle Rock, Pasadena/San Gabriel/Alhambra, Armenian, Lebanese )
Glendale is a haven for Armenian food as it is, so there is a good deal of competition. For me, especially with the Greek influence, Elena's beats many of them hollow.
It's a humble building; the floor noticeably slants toward the street, there are murals on the walls depicting Mediterranean harbors and Greek mythology (think laurel-clad maidens draped over bulls in the clouds). The tablecloths are vinyl, tan and marble-striped. Greek music plaintively strums, sways and pleads overhead. You can see through a door to where their paperwork takes place. Soap operas play on the small TV overhead. It has the comfortable feeling of a restaurant that was once a house.
The women bustling about with motherly smiles on their faces might as well be my own kin, although I am not at all Greek nor Armenian. They make me feel at home, quickly placing a basket of pita bread and neon-pink pickled cabbage before me. The small crock of fakes lentil soup, while thin, is lemony and full of all kinds of taste. The basic salad is a quarter wedge of iceberg with sweet onions and a vinaigrette. All this is nice.
What blows my mind is the 1/2 Chicken 1/2 Lamb plate. Fan. Tastic. Both meats are slightly charred around the edges in that way I like, juicy and epiphany-causing. Even the rice, yellow and wonderfully Greek, is wonderful: moist and full and likely cooked in chicken broth. The dish comes with sliced sweet onion and grilled tomato and green pepper (probably an Anaheim chile).
Elena's also has gyros, of course, stacked in thick heavenly wedges rather than brittle shavings. The tzatziki (the white yogurt/cucumber stuff) is also thick, almost potato-saladesque in consistency. There is baklava and Armenian coffee to finish me off.
Parking can be had at the nearby church on most days; otherwise you can find something on the residential streets.
( Categories: Cuisines (by Region), Glendale/Atwater/Eagle Rock, Armenian, Greek )