If somebody were to chart the Middle Eastern dining options in L.A.’s San Fernando Valley, Ventura Boulevard alone would keep people occupied for months. Still, not many restaurants have been able to distinguish themselves, but Esso Mediterranean Bistro stands out for serving Syrian specialties. The nation has largely been associated with turmoil lately, but don’t sleep on their cuisine. Elizabeth Mirzoian hails from Aleppo, Syria, and opened Esso with husband Jack in Encino in 2011. The restaurant’s named for what people called her as a little girl, but the flavors are rather adult.
Esso Mediterranean Bistro hides in the back corner of an Encino strip mall. The space has a small patio out front, and the family lines an open kitchen with red Christmas tinsel long past the time St. Nick starts to hibernate, adding to the restaurant’s simple charms.
Kebabs and dips dominate, but Esso features several dishes that aren’t often found on Los Angeles menus, including two kinds of house-made martadella and a bun-less hamburger with distinctly Syrian spicing.
Creamy hummus comes dressed with spicy Aleppo pepper, parsley and olive oil. Also be sure to ask for spicy pickled cucumbers spiked with pepperoncini and shaved garlic. Yes, bagged pita bread continues to limit most Middle Eastern restaurants in L.A.
Falafel combines fried garbanzo and fava beans and comes with creamy tahini sauce.
Armenian Chicken Martadella features finely ground chicken with spices and pistachio served on lettuce with pickled cucumbers and pungent garlic paste. Esso also makes a beef version.
Ras Nahnah is a savory fried beef patty marinated with garlic and mint, grilled and served with lemon, garlic, and dried mint sauce, with a hint of Aleppo pepper.
Grilled Cheese Pita is simple but satisfying “grilled cheese” with grilled, smoky pita cradling cheese marinated with mint, olive oil, and red pepper flakes.