Elena’s, aka Elena’s Greek and Armenian Cuisine, is located on a stretch of Glendale Avenue that is already home to a number of Armenian bakeries, grocery stores and kebab houses. It’s as modest a restaurant as any on the street and probably the best.
Look for the unmistakable green awning at the corner of Glendale Avenue and Acacia Street. Then give the air a hearty sniff for the equally unmistakable scent of meat and onions grilling on the huge charcoal brazier.
You enter through the kitchen. The dining room walls look thin enough to put a hand through, and the windows are obscured by leafy green vines growing on the outside of the building, obliterating views of the street. You sit at long, family-style tables draped in worn oilcloths. The decor includes faded posters of Greek islands, a Russian airline poster, and two large color photos of Marilyn Monroe.
Elena Tchentchenian is the woman responsible for the cultural mixing. She was born in Greece but reared in Armenia, which accounts for the Armenian touches. The staff, incidentally, all speak Armenian. One Saturday evening, we were the only non-Armenian diners in the restaurant, which was crowded with families--including some people who appeared to be relatives of Elena herself.
You feast at Elena’s, and at prices unbelievable by late-'90s standards. Take the stuffed grape leaves: fat, 6-inch-long dolmas stuffed with rice and ground meat. Delicate and delicious, they are blanketed in cucumber yogurt sauce. There are 12 in an order, $6.
The Armenian salad, another trencherman-sized platter, is only $3. Imagine a Greek salad without the olives and feta and you’ve got the idea. The salad is a veritable Mt. Ararat of sliced cucumbers, onions and ripe tomatoes, drenched in a nearly perfect vinaigrette. If you must have that Greek salad, don’t fear. For 75 cents extra, you can have one with your entree.
As for the entrees, they’re all under $7 and include rice, grilled vegetables (a long green pepper, a whole tomato and about one quarter of a semi-blackened onion) and soup or salad. Choose the soup and you get a giant tureen of pungent, addictive lemony lentil soup that tastes decidedly more Armenian than Greek.
The restaurant is quite loose about letting you mix and match. The kitchen will prepare just about any combination of meats for no extra charge, from a selection that includes lamb chops, luleh kebab, chicken kebab and shish kebab. They’re simply tremendous, all infused with the scents of spices, marinades and charcoal.
The lamb chops, for instance (four to an order), are perfectly blackened and redolent of pomegranate juice and garlic. The rubbery but appealing luleh kebab is a long cylinder of spiced ground beef, ribbed with grill marks. Chicken kebab comes in about eight huge chunks of tender meat that flake apart at the touch. And the shish kebab is fork-tender chunks of lamb--lean, juicy and crusted with a light spice coating.
If you aren’t a kebab person, Elena’s serves a mean stuffed eggplant--in fact, two entire grilled eggplants, split and topped (rather than stuffed) with a rich vegetable ragout of peppers, tomatoes, onions and garlic.
To top things off, the baklava is soft and yielding, filled with cinnamon and crushed walnuts, with dozens of layers of buttery filo. Elena’s rice pudding isn’t creamy but grainy, with a liberal dusting of powdered cinnamon.
Me, I’m finishing with soorj, the muddy Armenian coffee demitasse, which the kitchen prepares sweet or strong as requested. That’s all I have room for, anyway.
Elena’s Greek and Armenian Cuisine, 1000 S. Glendale Ave., Glendale. Mon.-Sat., 11 a.m.-10 p.m. Dinner for two, $12-$17. No alcohol. Street parking. MasterCard and Visa accepted. (818) 241-5730.