By Frier McCollister
Pasadena Weekly Contributing Writer
Mini Kabob, a tiny kabob shop in Glendale, was recently included by Tejal Rao in the New York Times’ The Restaurant List 2021.
It was one of 50 restaurants from around the country chosen for distinction by the newspaper’s food writers. Needless to say, the line to order a kabob might be longer than usual lately at Mini Kabob.
Armen Martirosyan is the classically trained chef manning the grill at Mini Kabob, working with his mother, Alvard, and his father, Ovakim, to maintain the generational family business.
“Business has picked up and I’m trying to keep consistency with how I approach everything,” Martirosyan said.
“At the end of the day, the quality of the product needs to maintain its level.”
Martirosyan is referring to the aftermath of the recent press attention and hinting at the secret of Mini Kabob’s enduring local success. Relentless care and attention to detail grounds the work at Mini Kabob.
The location has a storied history in Glendale.
“Mini Kabob actually started 36 years ago by a Persian-Armenian man and he owned the mechanics shop behind (the restaurant),” Martirosyan said.
“He would basically do mechanic work with cars and he would come to the front and sell mini kabobs, which are very traditional to Iran. They’re called loghme kabobs. It’s basically ground beef, (skewered) minced meat, cooked over an open fire on a grill rack, wrapped in rectangular sheets of lavash with sliced onions and chopped parsley with hints of sumac to give it acid offset and its wrapped and eaten like a wrap.”
Ovakim bought the business more than 25 years ago, after a succession of other operators.
“He brought his recipes. My dad was head chef for the Russian army, back in the day,” Martirosyan said. “He brought my mother on board, who grew up in a village in Armenia called Ashtarak. They had their own cattle, they grew their own herbs, they made their own bread. So, my mom came on board with my dad.”
Martirosyan was born in Burbank and raised in Glendale, where his parents still live. He graduated from Glendale High School.
“In 2007, after I graduated from high school, I attended Le Cordon Bleu (culinary school) in Pasadena. I graduated and went to work in multiple different restaurants, staged with a lot of (chefs) and managed a couple of restaurants,” he said.
Thankfully, he decided to return to his roots.
“Eventually, when I was 25, I came back to Mini Kabob with the intention of starting our social media and increasing our demographic,” Martirosyan said.
“Since then, our social media page has been verified through Instagram, which is great. We’ve brought on a whole different demographic of people, different age groups. Everybody eats at Mini Kabob now. We’ve served tons of celebrities.
“Everybody loves our food. Children love our food, babies, kids, older people. We season our food right. We cook it right. We take time to make the food. Not a lot of people do that. Leading up to this point, we’ve only enhanced our craft (and) the efficiency of our workflow.”
At this point, he and his parents were working together. Martirosyan was on the grill, handling phone calls and taking care of customers.
“I’m helping prep,” he added. “My mom is doing cold (appetizers), she’s setting up the stuff that I need to get going. And my dad is doing the meat prep, so it’s constant, everyday prep work. It’s a lot of work. I’ve actually incorporated a lot of French culinary techniques into our food. Not a lot of Armenian chefs do that.”
Martirosyan is discreet regarding those techniques.
“For me it’s the execution, I can’t give it away unfortunately,” he said. “It’s just the finishing of the product. I use specific methods.
“I just think I put a little bit more care in terms of execution. I don’t want to undermine what (older Armenian chefs) have done but being younger and a bit more conscious of how people want to eat, I try to make every single person’s food to their specific preference. It’s a little bit much. Different person, different palate, different preference. It’s very important to me to make sure that everybody gets an above-average experience at Mini Kabob.”
At Mini Kabob, the main attraction is the lule kabob, featuring marinated ground beef, or chicken, shaped to a skewer and grilled over an open flame. It may seem simple enough, but like the humble exterior of the shop itself, there’s much more behind it.
“What we do in terms of execution, we fabricate the meat,” Martirosyan said. “We mix it, we season it and then we grind it. It’s a very tedious process. We wash it in cold water and then marinate it overnight for service. Every aspect of it, my dad brings on really, really, really tedious and meticulous methods to make the lule kabobs. It’s so prep-heavy, it’s very annoying. It’s exhausting. I’m trying to bring someone on board to alleviate the stress for him. He’s about 70 years old but he’s grinding every day, along with my mom.”
It’s not just about the kabobs here though and there is some diversity of influence.
“Obviously kabobs in a sense are universal,” he said. “Preparations like the falafel and hummus are from my grandmother’s recipes from Egypt. There is a lot of culinary influence through different countries as well. There’s definitely an Egyptian influence to our food, because of the falafel and hummus.”
The Mini Kabob’s menu is concise and deceptively simple, given the robust energy and attention infusing it. There are three starters: eggplant caviar ($13.50); cucumber and yogurt ($9.50) and hummus ($8.50). Four salad options include the requisite tabbouleh bulgur wheat salad ($8.75) as well as the Shirazi salad ($9.75) with diced cucumbers and red onions, chiffonade basil and a homemade vinaigrette.
The beef lule kabob plate ($15.50) features the skewers served over basmati rice with fire-roasted tomatoes, jalapeno and hummus. Swap in ground chicken with the chicken lule (15.50). Shish kabobs are also offered, featuring marinated beef flap meat ($19.99); chicken thigh ($14.50) or pork tenderloin ($15.50). Vegans can opt for the falafel plate ($13.50) served with salad and hummus. Wash it all down with an Armenian pear soda ($5.50).
It should also be noted that in 2017, Martirosyan teamed with two talented chef friends — Liz Johnson and Will Aghajanian, co-owners and chefs at Horses in West Hollywood — to launch Mid East Tacos.
“I launched that and we took that to Smorgasburg and we were (there) for two years until COVID,” he said. “And then just recently, we signed a lease to open up in LA, I can’t say where yet. Early next year is what we’re aiming for (the opening).”
By the way, he makes the tortillas fresh from scratch-made masa. It’s the same commitment that goes into Mini Kabob.
“I’m very difficult as a person,” he said.
“I expect so much of what I serve people. It’s constantly, ‘How do I make this better? How do I cook this better? What can I do differently?’ Everybody wants to own a restaurant, but have they taken the time to really learn their craft? Being perfect is unattainable but what we try to strive for is something closest to it.”
He is paraphrasing the venerable sushi chef from the documentary “Jiro Dreams of Sushi.”
“My dad was teaching me to skewer lule kabobs, the ground beef on the skewer, ever since I was a kid,” Martirosyan said.
“To this day I’m working on that. It’s never-ending. There’s a method to the madness. Sometimes it gets emotional for me, why I do what I do. I’m out here to prove myself. I don’t need affirmations from other people. I just know that when a person eats my food and they enjoy it, I know I’ve done my job. That to me is the biggest pay off.”
During the pandemic, after the small restaurant reverted to takeout only, he discovered it gave him a chance to bond more closely with his guests.
“Over the counter, I was chit chatting with everybody,” Martirosyan said.
“You see my mom and dad, we’re all having fun, we’re laughing. We’re cooking food, dropping platters full of food in front of people and they’re like ‘Oh my god this is amazing.’ It’s just a whole different experience. The pandemic opened everybody’s eyes to slow down a little bit in life. It’s important to be with your loved ones. Take some time off. Enjoy yourselves, enjoy your life because it’s not all about work.”
That said, “We live and breathe our business,” he added.
“We’re a small restaurant. Know that the three people working inside (are) working passionately to make you the best, highest quality product that you’ll eat. Everything that we serve you on a plate, directly reflects on us as human beings. We are a family, and we treat everybody like family.”
313 1/2 Vine Street, Glendale