So I have this friend Ara, who is Armenian-American. Of course, normally, the first thing that comes to mind whenever I meet anybody of any particular cultural or ethnic group is not, "What is your personal ethnic experience?" or "What is the history of your people?" but "Where do I eat?"
I wanted some kebab one day. I suggest he pick a restaurant in Little Armenia. He suggested we meet in Carousel, in Little Armenia. It is quite tasty. Afterwards, I say, "Damn, that was quite tasty."
"Eh," he says, "Carousel is OK."
I pause. "There's better?"
"Of course. There's really no good Armenian food in Little Armenia." (Aside from Zankou, it is later established.)
"Where's the best Armenian then?"
"My aunt's house."
"Well that helps me none. Any restaurants?"
"Well, there is one..."
One month later: we're at Helena's, in Glendale. It is a little corner place, halfway between a room and a patio. Ara bounces happily.
"OK, Thi. This, this is real kebab. All the Armenian's go to Rafi's instead of Helena's. Stupid Armenians. Don't know their own food. They go for the ambiance. *Ambiance*! The food is terrible. Now this, this is great kebab."
I get the combination plate, which is lulu kebab - the ground stuff - shish kebab, and two lamb-chops, with a grilled pepper and a grilled tomato.
It blows my freakin' mind.
It is clearly the best kebab of my entire life.
Have you ever had an experience where you've been eating a cuisine for your entire life, and it becomes immediately and sensationally obvious to you that you've never had the real article?
Anyway - the lulu kebab is deep and lush and soft. It's almost creamy, and beautifully rich. It's like it carries it's own soup with it. The shish-kebab is chewy and crusty with a spice crust, and a deep flavor. The lamb-chops - the lamb chops are genuine beauty. I cannot speak more of the lamb chops. They were very, very happy lamb-chops.
Ara decided to experiment and get the lamb-kebab chicken-kebab plate. (Lamb-kebab is distinct from chicken kebab.) It is quite good, but not as distinctly wonderful as the combination platter.
"When you get tired of the flavor, try cutting a piece of pepper and wrapping the meat in it." This works wonderfully, especially with the lulu kebab.
I insist we order some grape-leave thingies. There are only huge platters on the menu, but we ask the waitress if we can get a small plate and she offers us a plate of six. This is fine. They turn out to be huge. Ara insists we order the non-vegetarian ones, which he says are better.
"The dolmas you find in Greek delis, at Zankou's, aren't real," says Ara. "They're cold. They're full of rice. What did the Greek's do? Cold turns grape-leaves stringy. Now this, this is a real ."
The grape-leaf thingies are also sensational, tons better then anything I've had in LA. There is, in them, a deep round flavor that seems to be simultaneously olivey and deeply browned, but not crusty/roasted/spicy, meat.
We leave. "You have to do something, Thi," says Ara. "You have to to get people to come to this restaurant. Everyone's going to Rafi's now. They all know that Rafi's is worse, but they go just because it's clean. Just because the service is good." (Indeed, the service at Helena's is glacial.) "You have to pack this place. It deserves to be packed."
So yes. Go to Helena's. They understand meat. The lentil soup is kind of boring, the salad completely silly, but the meat! This stands as one of the finest meat places in my memory. They get meat on a very deep level. They know how to cook the soul of meat.
I suggest *not* getting take-out. The meat had a very sharp decline in power as it got cold, towards the very end of the meal.
Helena's Greek Armenian Cuisine (It may be Helana's, or Halena's... my memory is blocked by the extreme daze I had as I left the restaurant)
1000 S. Glendale Blvd. (Ave? Who knows...)
It's on a corner, with lots of dangly Christmas lights. I think.