Since this is Los Angeles, it makes sense that one of the city’s best Middle Eastern restaurants would share a Van Nuys strip mall with a water shop and a restaurant touting “Edible Sandwiches.”
Chef-owner Elie Janesian and wife Talin have owned this Middle Eastern restaurant for nine months, taking over for founder Koko. It’s a family affair at Koko’s, with friendly daughter Karen frequently working the front of the house. Elie’s Armenian grandfather moved to Aleppo, Syria, after the genocide. In Aleppo, Elie ran a falafel stand, but after the family moved to the San Fernando Valley eight years ago, he worked as a jeweler. Fortunately, he couldn’t shake cooking, so he trained with Koko for three months before taking over the casual corner restaurant with wood floors and green tablecloths.
As for the food, everything is made in-house except for the pita. Elie Janesian is so committed to freshness that he buys whole lambs and butchers the animals in back.
Janesian probably makes the premier pickled vegetables (that aren’t kimchi) in the entire city. He pickles turnips, cabbage leaves and cucumbers, to name just three vegetables. They all feature a nice crunch and aggressive vinegar acidity.
Cheese boerek come four to an order and cost $5.50. The fried pockets feature crispy golden wrappers and a filling of minced parsley and sweet-salty cheese. When I asked what kind of cheese, Janesian said, “The name is secret cheese.” That shut the door on further speculation.
Arayes ($12) is a fairly uncommon Lebanese specialty consisting of crispy grilled pita filled with well-spiced ground lamb and pine nuts. A squeeze of lemon helped cut through the meat’s richness. Unlike at a lot of restaurants, the signature (and satisfying) funk made it clear we were eating lamb.
Anta Kali Kebab may have been even better, with house-made ground beef kebabs and a two-layer stack of grilled pita topped with tangy onion and tomato. On the side, we received a fairly common Lebanese side: a whole roasted tomato with sumac dusted onions.
Talin Janesian is the restaurant’s pastry expert, producing the boerek and baking baklava. Her flaky phyllo squares weren’t too syrupy and contained crumbled walnuts inside and crumbled pistachios outside.
After we paid the bill, Mr. Janesian came out to talk. We expressed an interest in his pickled vegetables and he directed us to big plastic bins of pickled cucumbers, which still needed a few more days of bathing in vinegar. He also shared a couple special pickled apricots, which were profoundly tart and totally unique.
This may have been my first meal at Koko’s, but considering how warm the Janesians were, and how good their food tasted, several return trips are in order to further mine the menu.