Forget strip malls. Industrial areas are the next frontier for fantastic food in LA. In north Burbank, Tonir Cafe has been quietly tearing up the kebab scene since 2011. The family-run restaurant by the railroad tracks resides across the 5 freeway from the Hollywood Burbank Airport, sandwiched between a boat repair shop and a tent rental company that anoints itself the “Tent Kings of Los Angeles.” To find Tonir Cafe, just keep watch for their stone and planter-lined facade and a rooftop satellite dish that looks large enough to message a Mars rover.
Gayane Movsesyan and brother David rely on grandma Siranoush’s delectable recipes to feed people at Tonir Cafe, opting to keep the decor relatively basic. Their dining room features pastel green walls, dark green tablecloths, brown cushioned banquettes, mirrors branded with beer brand logos, and TVs that show the occasional MMA fight. A tiny bar serves more as a pastry counter than a place to drink beer and wine, though that’s an option.
A tonir is traditional Armenian clay oven, similar to an Indian tandoor, that’s often built into the ground and cooks kebabs over smoldering wood. Sadly, that type of setup isn’t practical, or often permittable, in an LA restaurant setting. Tonir Cafe delivers the next best thing, skillfully grilling consistently juicy skewers over charcoal that still imparts a smoky sear.
Meats are simply seasoned with salt, pepper, garlic powder, and red pepper to impart layered savory flavor and vivid reddish brown color. Three visits to the restaurant prove that shish (filet mignon), pork shish (loin), and lule (ground beef) are all first-rate. Tonir Cafe also tackles less common cuts with flair.
Tonir Cafe’s lean, rosy lamb chops certainly have their charms, but can’t compare with lamb ribs shish kebab ($14.95) for flavor. The stubby ribs come garnished with crunchy shaved onions, parsley, and dusting of tangy sumac. Meat tears easily from bones and house pockets of melting fat. As any good eater knows, fat equals flavor.
Plates include a choice of fluffy rice, French fries, or salad, plus two appetizers. Smoky grilled eggplant caviar comes folded with onions, red bell peppers, and tomato paste; it tastes great as a dip for meat or tucked into pita. Sarma are vegetarian grape leaves stuffed with rice that sings thanks to a shower of lemon juice.
For the most part, the menu leans heavily toward Armenia, though chicken tapaka ($14.50) is a spatchcocked whole Cornish game hen that’s more typical of the Republic of Georgia. Tonir Cafe prepares the bird chargrilled or deep fried. The former preparation felt right given the restaurant’s always-reliable charcoal grill.
Jalapeño hummus is the only dish listed on the menu with a chile pepper icon, though the creamy green garbanzo bean, tahini, and garlic dip is simply not that spicy. Pickled vegetables included tiny gherkins, cauliflower, carrots, and celery, providing plenty of counterpunch for the rich grilled meats.
For hospitality and variety’s sake, Tonir Cafe makes most of their meats available a la carte, typically by the piece, though they refrain with higher priced items like lamb ribs, baby back ribs, and chicken tapaka. That way, anyone who wants to sample through the various kebabs can pick and choose their own adventure.
Refer back to the bar-top for a small house-baked dessert. Eldora ($2.95) is one-of-a-kind, listed as “homemade milk pie” on Tonir Cafe’s online menu. Each square stars airy accordion-like layers that are held together with condensed milk and butter, then dusted with powdered sugar.
Baklava is no Eldora, but Tonir Cafe’s version ($3.75) is way above average. A stack of flaky phyllo taller than a deck of playing cards contains cinnamon-infused crushed walnuts, plus a judicious amount of sugary syrup. Broken up pistachios add sweetness and color.
Tonir Cafe may have the biggest satellite TV dish above any restaurant in Burbank, but the Movsesyan family isn’t sending mixed signals. Their high definition Armenian comfort food is simply some of LA’s best.
Tonir Cafe, 3236 N. San Fernando Blvd., Burbank, 818.563.6666