On Christmas Eve, Raffy Ghadanian e-mailed, complete with a link to a YouTube video, to inform me that he and his brother George are “the original descendants of the dishes you enjoyed at Kokos middle eastern restaurant,” and that they opened a separate restaurant in Van Nuys called Kebab Halebi. Since my meal was good at Koko’s, and their father was that restaurant’s original owner, it precipitated a return to the mysterious land with an 818 area code.
Koko’s sons situated their “Middle Eastern” restaurant in a Van Nuys strip mall. “Middle Eastern” doesn’t give much away, but the Ghadanian family hails from Aleppo, Syria, and Halebi traditionally refers to the people of Aleppo. While their menu has several dishes found throughout the Middle East, certain dishes have unique Syrian twists, while others are just plain unique. Speaking of unique, an oddball lion statuette that greets diners at the door and seemingly stands sentinel over Kebab Halebi’s twin dining rooms.
They started us a with a plate of crunchy, house-pickled cucumbers, cabbage leaves, and turnips, which more or less matched the deluxe pickles at Koko’s, though there was no sign of the beguiling pickled apricots that were available at Koko’s on my last visit.
We received three complimentary dips, beginning with babaghanoush, a smoky roasted eggplant dip, “made from scratch,” folded with tangy lemon juice and tahini. Hummus, also “made from scratch” with little more than garbanzo beans, olive oil and spicing, sported pronounced garbanzo flavor, which should be a given, but some people mask that essential hummus flavor. Mouhammara combined bread crumbs, walnuts and pomegranate concentrate and packs more pepper punch at Lebanese favorites like Carousel. The dips were all top notch, but just like nearly every Middle Eastern restaurant in town, they resorted to bagged pita, which is always a letdown.
A Falafel ($10) plate featured six sandy-hued, parsley-flecked balls that were fairly dense, but still flavorful, especially when paired with creamy tahini and the refreshing salad of crunchy romaine lettuce, tomato, radish, parsley, peperocini, and punchy pickled turnips.
Kebab Helabi grills several different cuts of chicken, lamb, and beef, plus slightly more adventurous frog legs and quail, but those are by no means the restaurant’s most interesting options.
Ras Nana ($13) was especially compelling, a 10-inch patty crafted from ground beef and lamb, flame broiled until it sported a nice sear, then submerged in a tangy pool of lemon juice, garlic, olive oil and dried mint. This is one of the hallmarks of good Middle Eastern cuisine, balancing fairly rich meats with acidity. If they submerged the patty in gravy, it would have resembled Syrian Salisbury steak, but this version was much more enjoyable.
Antakali Kebab ($15) featured four skewers of juicy ground beef lule kebab, which rested in a row underneath griddled pita slathered with tangy onion, tomato, pine nuts and spices. The Ghadanians plated their entree with a grilled tomato and shaved raw onions dusted with tart, lemony sumac.
Syrian cuisine is fairly hard to come by in L.A., but now, two restaurants are just across the 405 from each other, making Van Nuys a destination for Aleppo natives and Angelenos alike.