The Family Behind Mini Kabob Offers Big Armenian Flavors from a Tiny Restaurant

·5 min read
Armen Martirosyan with his mother, Alvard, and his father, Ovakim
Armen Martirosyan with his mother, Alvard, and his father, Ovakim

Julia Stotz

He is standing in the prep corner of the tiny kitchen at Mini Kabob, the beloved restaurant his family owns in Glendale, California. The night before, the 32-year-old and his father finished catering a local wedding for 100 people, so supplies are low, including the seasoned ground beef that forms the base of what is arguably their restaurant's most iconic dish—the tender lule kebab. When it emerges from the flames, it glistens with fat and ripples with flavor. Swaddle the meat in a blanket of chewy lavash and a shower of paper-thin onions, and it's one of the best bites in the entire city.

Although it might feel like Mini Kabob is a reference to the restaurant's shockingly small size—it clocks in at barely 299 square feet—or its shockingly small staff (there are exactly three employees: Armen; his father, Ovakim; and his mother, Alvard), it is in fact a style of kebab, known as loghme in Farsi. The Martirosyans inherited the name of the place from the original owner, who started the restaurant 36 years ago directly in front of his mechanic shop, selling meat skewers when he wasn't fixing cars. Ovakim, who spent several years working as a cook in the Russian army, bought the restaurant 25 years ago after it had passed through a series of different owners, transforming the kitchen into a celebration of simple but flavor-packed Armenian cooking (with a gently Egyptian influence, thanks to Armen's grandparents).

The space might be small, but it is difficult to ignore the energy and heart that ebbs and flows through the space. It's a mom-and-pop shop in the truest sense: Ovakim is a master of meat and takes on a majority of the labor-intensive prep work. He butchers the various proteins before grinding them down and seasoning them according to recipes he likes to keep close to the vest. Ovakim then lovingly and patiently pats and sculpts the meat onto the flat, swordlike metal skewers with wet hands. It's easy to see the years of experience in his steady rhythm.

Alvard, who Armen says is definitely the "best cook" in the family, has knife skills that might worry even the most veteran assassin. She whips up batches of the restaurant's cold appetizers, like ikra, a tangy eggplant salad, and mounds thinly shaved onions tossed with sumac, which help round out nearly every dish. Alvard and Ovakim do all the shopping for the restaurant themselves, regularly visiting the local supermarket and carrying back plastic shopping bags of eggplants and peppers.

Armen, who joined the business full time after completing culinary school, staging in prestigious kitchens around Los Angeles, and managing other restaurants, pulls triple duty managing the grill, answering the endlessly ringing phone, and welcoming the customers who pop in and out of the shop at a rapid clip. (Due to the space constraints, there are just two small tables in the front of the restaurant for dine-in customers, so it's mostly a to-go operation.) It's a job he makes look easy, never breaking a sweat as he jumps from grill to customer.

Like many successful family businesses split across generations, there exists an underlying tension, felt most palpably between son and father. Armen is nearly bursting at the seams with ideas on how to modernize and expand the restaurant, while Ovakim prefers to keep things the way they have been for the past quarter century. "I've been trying to get him to let us accept credit cards for years," says Armen with a sigh. The compromise? The "cash only" sign in bright blue ink still sits in front of the register, but Mini Kabob is now on all the third-party delivery apps.

The biggest shift has been the restaurant's robust presence on social media. Armen mans the Instagram account with nearly 37,000 followers, posting everything from behind-the-scenes videos of kebabs charring on the grill and close-up shots of him marinating the meat for their tender beef shish kebabs to charming videos of his parents dancing around the shop. He recently put the restaurant on TikTok, where Armen amasses thousands of views on videos of him and his parents re-creating popular dance trends while in the restaurant. Mini Kabob's internet presence has won it a legion of fans, elevating it from an under-the-radar neighborhood joint to one of Los Angeles' most famous kebab spots, counting celebrities like Diplo and Eric Wareheim among its fans.

Armen is hopeful that he can one day make Mini Kabob not so mini by expanding into the space next door so there is at least a proper dining room to lay out platters piled high with rice, charred peppers, crispy beveled potatoes, and supremely tender tubes of meat licked by the flames of the grill. And though he has a deep emotional attachment to the restaurant he grew up in, he also has ambitious culinary aspirations of his own. When he isn't slinging kebabs, Armen runs a pop-up concept called MidEast Tacos, fusing his California upbringing with Armenian roots. He is in the process of opening a brick-and-mortar location of MidEast Tacos while daydreaming about other concepts he would like to bring into the world. But for now, he must get back to the kitchen: The kebabs will not grill themselves—and the orders are piling up.