The precarious status of Syria refugees has certainly become a hot button issue in the news, and considering the fate of people facing that conflict is so uncertain, discussion of the country's cuisine is bound to be less of a priority. Fortunately, Southern California is a place where Syrian people face no such dangers, and their culture has started to thrive. Approximately 60,000 Syrian-Americans live in Southern California, and they're opening more and more restaurants all the time.
Syrian cuisine delivers large flavors, bolstered by spices like allspice, cinnamon, clove, plus the iconic, and fragrant, Aleppo pepper, which is named for the country's largest city. Of course Syrian cuisine shares considerable overlap with neighboring countries like Lebanon, Turkey and nearby Armenia. Still, a more rustic through-line and some unique touches and dishes help to distinguish Syrian cuisine food from other Levantine cooking traditions. The San Fernando Valley serves as a hub for Syrian people (and chefs) in L.A. Tour the country's cook through these four restaurants in the Valley.
In 2014, Wafa Ghreir debuted Kobee Factory next to her family's Burbank liquor store. She moved to L.A. from Homs, Syria, four decades back and still showcases her great-grandmother's recipes. The space isn't much to look at, with pastel green walls lined with traditional garb and photos of ancient Syrian sites. However, this is the L.A. restaurant with by far the deepest roster of Syrian dishes.
[Msabbaha from Kobee Factory]
Kobee, aka kebbe, is a staple of Syrian cuisine. Yes, other countries in the region combine ground beef and either bulgur or cracked wheat, serving the combo raw, baked, or deep-fried and football-shaped. In Syria, they also grill kobee. Kobee Factory features juicy patties mixed with beef ("red meat") and bulgur that are filled with ground beef, pine nuts, and spices and grilled. Ask them to add minced jalapeños if you prefer more of a kick. (They don't have jalapenos in Syria. Instead they use haskouri peppers, which are longer, thinner and milder, but unavailable Stateside.)
The soft sausage falls somewhere between boudin and soondae on the encased meats spectrum
Musadeen is an off-menu special involving lamb intestines stuffed with rice, ground beef, and spices. A heaping bowl of links arrives in beef broth seasoned with allspice, cinnamon, bay leaf and onion. The soft sausage falls somewhere between boudin and soondae on the encased meats spectrum. Slice and dip in a bold blend of olive oil, lemon juice and garlic to enliven matters.
Msabbaha is a hearty tahini dip that's dressed with red onion, tomato, dried fava beans, and ameshi, a crumbly house-made Feta. Scoop with house pita chips. They also make comforting kishik, a soup featuring wheat that's been soaked in yogurt and dried in the sun, along with toppings of ground beef and pine nuts.
If you call ahead, they should also be willing to make magloba, a mountain of rice folded with fried eggplant, chicken and almonds that's layered and baked into a dome. Mehshi is a play on stuffed grape leaves that's supersized to squash, which contains ground beef and rice and arrives bobbing in tomato-based broth.
Even though Kobee Factory has only been operating in Van Nuys for less than two years, the family clearly has a grasp on the neighborhood and has quickly become a community hub, and not just for homesick Syrians. —14110 Oxnard St, Van Nuys, CA
Esso Mediterranean Bistro
If not for a traumatic eye injury, Elizabeth Mirzoian never would have opened Esso Mediterranean Bistro. She was teaching at an Armenian school when her son, a student, sustained the severe injury. She couldn't stand to be at the school anymore once her son's vision suffered. She resigned and started cooking more at home for her three kids, husband Jack, and a parade of friends. Encouraged by all of the positive feedback, Elizabeth opened a bistro in the back corner of an Encino strip mall, opting for her nickname as a little girl in Aleppo.
The space is simple enough, with a small patio, nine speckled tables inside, with earth-toned art-lined walls and lively Arabic music playing on the sound system.
Esso specializes in several Syrian dishes, including Kebbe nayye. This appetizer eats like a restrained tartare, with smooth, lean, finely ground raw beef folded with crunchy cracked wheat. Chopped parsley, raw white onions, a drizzle of olive oil, and a dusting of Aleppo pepper help to round out the texture. The dish comes with chopped jalapeño submerged in lemon juice, designed for invigorating dips.
Chef Mirzoian excels at making charcuterie, such as martadalla, which is a cousin to the more familiar mortadella. Smooth slices are either crafted with ground chicken or beef, along with garlic, spices and pistachios. Unlike in Italy, this version comes on a bed of iceberg lettuce with punchy pickled cucumbers and pungent garlic paste. Magheaneh has even closer ties to Armenia, though Esso makes that spiced beef sausage in-house as well.
Ready to taste the best protein-style burger on the planet?
Ready to taste the best protein-style burger on the planet? Skip the lame lettuce wrap and go right to ras nahnah. Chef Mirzoian marinates a fried beef patty with garlic and mint, grills and serves the in a bath of lemon, garlic and dried mint. A sprinkling of Aleppo pepper further boosts the flavor profile
Esso also runs daily specials like dolma. However, these aren't your standard stuffed grape leaves, which also go by that name. Instead, every Thursday, Chef Mirzoian blends ground beef and rice with garlic, lemon, tomato paste, Aleppo pepper paste, and mint before stuffing squash, bell pepper, cabbage, baby eggplant and, yes, grape leaves. She bakes and plates the flavorful quintet with a side of lebni, thick condensed yogurt that delivers tang that helps to dial down the dish's considerable flavor. —17933 Ventura Blvd, Encino, CA
In a Van Nuys strip mall, you'll find Kebab Halebi, halebi being what people who hail from Aleppo call themselves. George Ghadanian learned Syrian recipes from his uncles before immigrating to the U.S. to open a restaurant. He later imparted his knowledge to son Krikor, who founded the nearby (and also excellent) Koko's in Van Nuys. Now Krikor's sons George and Raffy Ghadanian run this restaurant not far from the massive concrete artery known as the 405 freeway.
A lion statue welcomes diners to Kebab Halebi, which houses twin dining rooms. Choose a side and upon walking in you'll receive a complimentary plate of house-made pickles, including cucumbers, cabbage, and turnips.
[Ras nana at Halebi]
Ras nana, spelled differently here than at Esso, is an even bigger standout item here. A ground beef and lamb patty the size of a personal-sized pizza is flame-broiled until it forms a sear, and is then submerged in a piquant pool of lemon juice, crushed garlic, olive oil and dried mint. You may want to tilt the remaining juices into your mouth by the time you slice your last bite of meat.
Sometimes, the Syrian touches are subtle. For dips, the differences may come down to spicing. For instance, Kebab Halebi's rich, nutty hummus comes with a dusting of Aleppo pepper and aromatic ground fenugreek. After experiencing two meals at the restaurant, it's no wonder that Ghadanian family recipes have attracted customers to their restaurants for three generations. —15333 Sherman Way, Van Nuys, CA
This restaurant dates to 1996 near Sepulveda Basin Wildlife Reserve. Chef Eli Janesian and wife Talin have owned Koko's since early 2009, taking over for long-time owner Krikor "Koko" Ghadanian, who was mentioned earlier. Eli ran a falafel stand in Aleppo before relocating the family to L.A. He worked as a jeweler before training with Ghadanian and eventually buying the restaurant.
Janesian makes almost everything in-house. He butchers whole lambs in the back. He also pickles his own turnips, cabbage, cucumber, and if you time the season right, apricots.
Eggplant kebab is a house specialty, sometimes called ourfa kebab. The name refers to Şanlıurfa, a province in southeastern Turkey that currently borders Syria. During the genocide, which lasted from 1915-1917, thousands of Armenian people fled from the area to Syria, bringing this dish with them. Janesian alternates layers of mix of minced beef chuck and lamb rib meat with eggplant slices that get smoky on the grill.
Koko's also serves an array of kebabs, a wealth of dips, and of course his signature falafel, but the most unique dish they have either on or off-menu is probably Janesian's olive salad. Mediterranean green olives join fresh oregano leaves, pomegranate seeds, scallions, olive oil, lemon juice, pomegranate juice and dried, ground bell pepper to form a tangy plate that will punch you in the mouth.
To many people, a lot of the food at these four restaurants might taste the same as what you'd find at Lebanese or Armenian restaurants around L.A. However, the deeper you dive into Syrian cuisine, the more you'll recognize the differences. Considering thousands of Syrian-Americans already live in L.A., and family members are looking for safe harbor, don't be surprised to find more Syrians immigrants land in the city. Yes, some of them are bound to open restaurants to help earn a living, given their culinary backgrounds. When that happens, you'll be equipped with some of the tools to help decipher their delicious cuisine. —16935 Vanowen St, Van Nuys, CA