Saturday, March 8, 2014

The six luckiest people in Glendale: Mini Kabob at lunchtime

I found Mini Kabob way back in 2010.  Or, barely found it.  After driving right past it two or three times and cursing my 2010-era GPS device, which kept scolding me and informing me it was 'recalculating' in an Australian accent, I finally realized Mini Kabob was the little cottage next to the strip mall.  The one that looked like a private home and had metal grating over its practically featureless door.  The one with space for exactly six customers.  No more.

Nearly four years later, last week, I walk into Mini Kabob with a different companion and a completely different haircut, plus four years of grad-school-worry-lines on my forehead, and one of the owners pops his head out of the kitchen, looks at me for a few tenths-of-a-second, and says, "You've been here before."  It is a statement, not a question.

"A long time ago," I say.

"Of course," he replies, like it isn't weird that there's been a four year gap and here I am again and here he is, recognizing me.  "You should try the pear soda.  You'll love it.  It's made with Armenian water.  Armenian water is the best in the world."

He smiles at me, setting down the tall, wine-colored bottles, and I have a flashback.

I'm sitting in the exact same seat in the summer of 2010.  I've just moved to California.  I don't know anything about Armenian food.  I don't even know what a kabob is, actually.  I think that a requirement of a kabob is it has to be on a stick.  Basically, I'm operating under the misconception that Middle Eastern meat is some oddly spiced mashup of carnival turkey legs and BBQ skewers.

I'm staring at the bright green sodas he's got lined up on the counter, and he notices, and pops one open for me.  "Try this.  You'll love it.  It's tarragon.  Nothing artificial.  Nothing fake.  It's made with Armenian water.  Armenian water is the best in the world!"

As he regales me with tales of the natural-ness and purity of the rest of the food he cooks - stories that would later be corroborated, and more, by my nascent tastebuds - I drink the tarragon soda, marveling that something that looks only a few shades off Mountain Dew can taste so... interesting.  It doesn't taste anything like tarragon.  It tastes, in fact, like a sharp, simplified version of Virgil's Root Beer.

Mini Kabob's food hasn't changed any more than, apparently, my visage has.  There's restaurant food that tastes like it was prepared by someone who went to culinary school and learned about precision, presentation, and proportion - and then there's restaurant food that tastes like it was prepared by someone who's made tiny tweaks to the same ancient recipe, spice by spice, year after year, for decades.  This food falls under the latter category.

You can drive a fraction of a mile in any direction and drown yourself in other kabobs - after all, this is Glendale, and Glendale is dotted with as many kabob restaurants as Monterey Park is with dim sum places, or Gardena is with ramen joints, or Artesia is with Indian buffets, or...

You get it.

But don't.  Don't drive that fraction of a mile.

You'll feel rejuvenated after eating here.  Every bite of kabob energizes you, instead of sending you one step closer to that post-lunch food coma.  There aren't any bash-you-over-the-head flavors, so you get a sort of comfortable wash of taste.  Like high tide at the flavor beach.  The hummus is extremely garlicky, but they've cooked it so it doesn't bite.  And the eggplant caviar is spicy, but muted by the sheer volume of roasted, slightly charred eggplant skin and flesh.

While the rice doesn't have that bright yellow color that most places' rice does, it doesn't need to, because it tastes yellow and that's all that matters.  How do they get their luleh kabobs to step away from the 'floppy hamburger' genre and into magic?  Why is the barely-dusted pork so delicious when the crystals of spice are hardly visible?  How is their lavash so toilet-paper thin and still manages to scoop up giant globs of hummus every bit as well as those tortilla chips shaped like canoes?

Normally, I prefer bash-you-over-the-head flavors.  Lemongrass.  Mint.  Ginger.  Sichuan peppercorns.  Things that loudly make their presence known, like drunk girls, but better-smelling.  Mini Kabob is one of the few exceptions.  I wouldn't take someone here to blow their mind.  I'd take them here to cheer them up.