In a city like Glendale, home to the second largest Armenian population in the U.S., it can be tricky to figure out what distinguishes certain kebab houses. While kebabs are the core product, it’s the other dishes and influences that allow a handful of restaurants to pull away from the pack. For example, Elena’s draws on both Greek and Armenian heritage, and further north, just off Glendale’s main drag, Raffi’s Place pulls from Persia to create a greater impact.
Even though Raffi Bakijanian’s eponymous restaurant is located right near a retail-centric stretch of Brand Boulevard, he and wife Gohar have managed to carve out a relaxed niche since 1993. The space features a covered, tree-lined patio where large groups linger over sumptuous feasts. In cooler weather, they fire up heat lamps and heated dining rooms with Old World images flank the patio.
We started with two appetizers. Tourshi ($4.95) consisted of a bracing bowl of pickled vegetables, including sliced carrots, cauliflower florets, celery stalks, cabbage leaves and cloves of garlic, all packing a vinegar punch and dill tones.
“Eggplant” ($6.95) turned out to be a bowl of eggplant dip mixed with tomato sauce and garlic. We spooned the tangy, smoky dip onto sheets of lavash, a millimeter-thin flatbread.
Since it was a cool night, we weren’t about to limit ourselves to cold appetizers. Raffi’s Place offers 14 different options when it comes to grilled meat, fish and poultry. Think marinated filet mignon “charbroiled to perfection,” Cornish hen, rack of spring lamb and mahi mahi. Those last two options were both very good on a previous visit, but this stop was designed to explore new territory.
The menu item that generated the most interest was Abgoosht (aka Deezy) $13.95, mainly because it had no explanation. The dish turned out to be a lamb, pinto bean and lime peel stew that our waiter drained and mashed. This was a dramatic presentation that resulted in fully integrated flavors and fun consumption.
With the dish, we received an a powerfully funky garlic bulb that aged in wine vinegar until brown, but remained crunchy. Make sure you won’t stand within five feet of another human for the rest of the night if you plan to take a bite.
We also received a basket of sesame-studded, pull-apart, Persian wheat flatbread called sangak. Our waiter instructed us to tear off pieces of bread and toss them in the bowl of lamb jus. The bread soaked up the lamb flavor and and paired well to the mash, which had an unmistakable lamb flavor, earthy elements from the beans and some tang from the lime peel.
Chicken soltani ($19.95) was a marinated combination of chicken barg (thin-cut chicken breast) and chicken koobideh, a casing-free sausage made from ground leg, breast and “special spices.” The chicken koobideh, which goes by lule in Armenia, was especially good, with a winning char that locked in the juices. The chicken breast was stained orange-red from the marinade and unfortunately was a little overcooked.
For an additional $2, you can super-charge your kebabs with a flavored Persian rice, either Albalo Polo – basmati rice mixed with black cherries; Baghali Polo – basmati rice mixed with dill weed and lima beans; or Zereshk Polo – basmati rice mixed with barberries and saffron. We went with with the cherry rice, which added a sweet-tart element that would have paired even better with a richer meat.
The prices are fairly high for family style Middle Eastern food, but the portions are also significantly larger than what you’d find at a neighborhood spot. Raffi’s Place remains a local favorite for good reason.