Ararat Armenian's Second-Gen Success Story

Three restaurants in Anaheim have confounded me for most of my adult life for their ability to stay open. One is Tony's Deli off Anaheim Boulevard, a cubby hole squeezed next to a used-car dealer that has managed to stay in business for more than 40 years despite the city's changing demographics and serving only weekday lunches. Another spot is the Dutch Avio Club on Katella, which I've never been to because it only seems to open for invite-only parties yet hasn't been bulldozed despite the lack of Dutch in the area.

Yet none of them are more amazing in their luck than Ararat Armenian Cuisine, just down the street from Avio, with one of the most unfortunate locations in Orange County: deep inside a parking lot that's fronted by a Latina beauty salon and a tired office building. It's a cavernous place that looks transplanted from North Hollywood: faux-stones as wallpaper, perfectly placed cutlery on all tables, a boombox out in the open playing tunes and empty most of the day. In fact, Ararat was informally closed for a couple of years, open only for banquets, as the family who runs the place decided to concentrate on catering for the county's small Armenian community. But the 23-year-old place now has a new vibrancy in the form of the second generation, who gamely mans the family business even if it seems to attract just one customer at a time.

The years haven't changed the menu: more Middle Eastern than Armenian, really. You won't find sojouk, but you will find luleh kebab, luscious ground-beef beef skewers. And there is a fine lahmajune, the Armenian pizza, that is baked fresh upon order, thus the kitchen usually takes its sweet time to make. But Ararat's offerings don't veer much from appetizers, three kebabs and a surprising emphasis on dolmahs—stuffed vegetables common to the Caucasus that are waiting for vegetarians to discover. But the evidence of the second generation's attention to craft is evident. The in-house metabbal (Armenian babaghanoush) is split into four sections by lines of sumac solely for the sake of appearances; basturma, air-dried beef, is arranged with the care of a Khachaturian composition. The luleh and chicken kebabs do their job, but the filet mignon version is actually fabulous instead of an excuse to charge customers more, with an extra rubbing of sumac seeping into the meat and bringing on the heat.

I wish the second generation of Ararat chefs well and challenge them to introduce more Armenian-specific specialties. Besides, any place that blasts KKJZ-FM 88.1 is a great place, indeed.

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