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With Armenian Barbecue In Mexican Forms, ‘Mideast Tacos’ Opens in Silver Lake On Monday

Chef Armen Martirosyan has officially brought his Armenian-Mexican fusion taco concept back from the dead. His tacos and burritos feature both corn and flour Mejorado tortillas and options like crispy, exceptionally seasoned falafel and kebabs grilled over an open fire—only in L.A.!

1:32 PM PST on January 25, 2024

In the wake of Kogi Korean BBQ's astronomical ascent in the early aughts, L.A.'s streets became littered with bad tortillas struggling to hem in the weight of entire nations' worth of ingredients, all vying for the same cross-cultural triumph. Most of these experiments were eventually ditched, left to fade away in the potholes of our more haunted synapses.

Mideast Tacos, which brandishes the flavors of Armenian khorovats in the form of Mexican food, remains one of this city's scant taco-fusion success stories, cherished by local food voices and the people who follow them into long lines at Smorgasburg alike.

Where others failed, Mideast Tacos thrives on a dedication to good cooking and great tortillas. Like Roy Choi before, the concept is driven by love for the city where its owner was bred and spread. Something the bandwagon buccaneers just can't fake.

Shrimp quesadilla. Photo via Mideast Tacos.
Mideast Tacos' facade on a corner of Sunset Boulevard. Photo via Mideast Tacos

Mideast Tacos will grand-open its first brick-and-mortar restaurant location this Monday in Silver Lake, in the corner building once occupied by Israeli restaurant MH ZH, which folded during the pandemic despite its popularity.

Mideast Tacos comes from chef-owner Armen Martirosyan, who was born in L.A. and raised in the culture of his parents' post-Soviet Armenian community, which included rites of passage such as watching old episodes of "Nu, pogodi!" (which Martirosyan calls a "better Tom & Jerry") and grilling wisps of meat on sticks and metal swords over red-hot coals anytime anyone even suggested getting together; a sort of South Caucasus version of the Southland's carne asadas.

Martirosyan's parents took over the Glendale Persian restaurant Mini Kabob in 1987. Like most seeds of hard-working restaurateurs, their son naturally grew up between the walls of this shashlik shack, formally coming aboard in 2015 to transform it into a temple of from-scratch Armenian luleh kebab-ary. One that has been recognized by the New York Times, its name still echoing as one of many of L.A.'s great small culinary gems.

An L.A. child to the grain, Armen was raised on tacos, burritos, and quesadillas. He credits the day a friend put together a “ridiculous” burrito at Mini Kabob as the a-ha moment that lured him into taquero lands.

“It was the most obnoxious thing ever,” he tells L.A. TACO. “But I knew that there was direction.”

When Zach “Midtown Lunch” Brooks, the general manager of Smorgasburg, approached Martirosyan about Mini Kabob joining the weekly food stand extravaganza, Armen remembers thinking, “Hell yeah, let’s do it. We’ll incubate the concept there.”

He and partner Aram Kavoukjian started at Smograsburg in 2017, initially serving charcoal-grilled falafel, steak, and chicken kebab wrapped in lavash as tacos and burritos.

All tacos feature Mejorado corn and flour tortillas. Photo via Mideast Tacos
All kabobs are grilled over an open fire. Photo via Mideast Tacos

He embraced the style as his version of “tacos árabes,” referencing the taco-esque wraps originally introduced to the world by the Lebanese community in Puebla, Mexico. Lines were long, and several pop-ups and catering gigs followed until the world was collectively sentenced to stay its ass home.

Roaring back, the new brick-and-mortar Mideast Tacos space is a small, white wedge on the corner of Sunset Boulevard and Maltman Avenue. The interior has just enough room for a slim kitchen, where fireballs frequently swell over shashlik of chicken, beef, and shrimp cooking over the exposed heat plates of a propane grill, next to a plancha where tortillas hiss and puff, and quesadillas sear, alongisde a couple of prep stations.

Orders are placed at a central register, the cue for salvos of shouting among kitchen staff, along with enough sporadic pyromancy to rival a Ramstein stadium tour.

We had a preview of the space on Wednesday night, wading through a nebula of East Coast-transplanted lifestyle scribes and familiar local faces to order a little bit of everything from the register in front.

All of the flour and corn tortillas at Mideast come from Mejorado, the gustatory gift of decorated L.A. chef Eddie Ruiz and the forces behind Burrito La Palma that allow food lovers to better-find better flour tortillas and flip the bird to Mission.

Chef-owner Armen Martirosyan. Photo via Mideast Tacos.

The strength of Mejorado's tortillas does its share of lifting, ensuring the Mexican side of this concept stays solid. Armen tells L.A. TACO he planned to use Mejorado for the flour tortillas and Kernel of Truth Organics for the corn, but ultimately found it better to just use one vendor.

As for the Armenian front, Martirosyan and his crew don't skimp on crafting full-flavored and sufficiently spiced recipes to slip into these tortillas, from the deeply marinated meats to the surfeit of Aleppo pepper sprinkled around for its intricate essence and kick. In or out of tortillas, this is Armenian barbecue with fortitude beyond the typical.

The quesadillas here are fire. Even plain, and especially when strips of tender steak, straight off the grill, snap through their pliant flour tortillas, amid webs of gooey mozzarella flecked with black pepper and a green herb our taste buds kept telling us is tarragon, a familiar taste in Armenia and its surroundings, but the menu says is Thai basil.

Falafel balls, airy, light, and crisp, are spiced with similar intensity, making for one of the city's more standout falafels. Served as a taco with sumac and a yellow, arbol chile-and-chipotle-stained toum (a garlicky Armenian aioli, this colorful version inspired by Wes Avila's own salsa de árbol, Armen says), this is Mideast Taco's signature. The falafel is outstanding, although one side of us thinks it might be better positioned in a puffy pita than a corn tortilla.

And while we normally don't seek burritos bursting with rice, Mideast shines with this style, its long rice grains prepared like, and tasting of, an excellent pilaf. The rice, encased in a flour tortilla, was rich with the soaked-in juices of smoky chicken, onion, and herbs, served with your choice of a salsa roja made with guajillo, árbol, and serrano chiles, toum arbol, or a salsa verde.

A lightly grilled shrimp taco was a table highlight, with Thai basil and toum complimenting its tangy, meaty, and creamy profile. Fluffy, coin-shaped wedges of Aleppo-peppered cottage fries were also deliriously crushable on the side, served with a soon-to-vanish cup of the creamy toum arbol to simultaneously tame and bolster their heat.

For refreshment and nostalgia, Armenian pear "lemonade" and sparkling water are served alongside Mexican Coke and Fanta.

Excitement is justly high in L.A. for this permanent place to find Mideast Tacos, which sadly ceased its pop-up operations during the pandemic.

It's another hit in the only-in-L.A. category of finding first-rate food from one influential local culture fused with the city’s heartbeat of first-rate Mexican food. Concepted and skillfully executed by a passionate son of the city now responsible for enlightening us with excellent meals at two quite different concepts, one rooted in tradition and one out to rupture it.

Mideast Tacos ~ 3536 Sunset Blvd. Los Angeles, CA 90026. Closest Metro lines and stop: Bus Lines 2 and 4 - “Sunset/Maltman.”

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