Depending on one’s preference, the Glendale strip mall on the corner of Central and Chevy Chase Avenues is mostly known for a branch of Papillon International Bakery or an outlet of Baskin-Robbins, the ice cream chain founded in this city back in 1945. In spring of 2021, Vernatoun restaurant and banquet hall opened in the back corner of the strip mall, serving some of the most compelling Armenian food in Glendale. With faux brick walls, burgundy-clothed tables, and a layout that accommodates banquets (a fairly common business model in the city), the menu leans on classic Armenian dishes executed for their target demographic: the largest Armenian community in the United States.
Armenian cuisine exists as part of a diaspora, since the country’s people spread across the Caucasus, Mediterranean, Middle East, and elsewhere to escape atrocities that Turkey perpetrated upon the Armenian people beginning in 1915. Restaurateurs who have reached Los Angeles to start businesses often incorporate influences from intervening generations spent in countries like Russia, Iran, Syria, Lebanon, and Greece.
Vernatoun’s kitchen manager Valog Vartanyan grew up in Tehran; his grandfathers escaped persecution in Armenia and moved to Iran before he was born. Vartanyan has lived in LA for 12 years. He previously cooked at another Armenian restaurant in Glendale that closed due to the pandemic before joining Vernatoun, whose owner and general manager hail from Yerevan, Armenia’s capital.
Many Los Angeles restaurants that people associate with Armenia thus have myriad influences and often focus on kebabs, akhtsan (salads), and nokhudest (appetizers). In Glendale, a renowned Armenian epicenter, some restaurants have deeper menus with soups, stews, and large format dishes that harken back to the old country, including such restaurants as Old Gyumri, Kabob Land, and Hatsatoun. Vernatoun is the latest entry and excels at making lesser-known dishes.
Gev Kazanchyan, a friend of mine who was born in Yerevan and has lived in LA since he was three years old, grew up eating dishes like these, which his mother would make on special occasions. He explains that these dishes don’t often appear in Los Angeles’s Armenian restaurants because people from the diaspora operate many of them. “These are all homeland Armenian dishes, and done traditionally by those in the homeland,” Kazanchyan says. “These culinary traditions were observed by the folks that stayed and didn’t migrate to other countries.” More often than not, people would cook these dishes at home for families and guests, though Armenian-Americans who live in Glendale and surrounding areas have a hunger for this food, making it possible to offer menu items like ghavurma, a preserved beef preparation, and aveluk.
Aveluk is a bright, tangy soup featuring sorrel. Kazanchyan calls sorrel a “very healthy foraged green, gathered and dried in season (spring), and prepared throughout the year.” Armenians use sorrel for soup in winter. Vernatoun makes their aveluk ($15) with vegetables, grains, and mushrooms. Their compelling starter arrives in a bowl with a handle, making it tempting to drink straight from the vessel, though servers do provide a spoon.
Kazanchyan says ghavurma is a warming comfort food that helps people get through Armenia’s often bitterly cold winters. Though there isn’t a strong need for such hearty fare in sunny LA, Vernatoun still offers a version for nostalgia’s sake. Vernatoun grills top round to make its ghavurma ($20), coating the beef in salt and butter after cooling and storing in the fridge. This results in deeply savory chunks with a beguiling chew served cool with raw red onions, as well as tangy lemon and garlic dressing that tempers the intensity. Tuck ghavurma and crunchy red onion into lavash, the whisper-thin Armenian flatbread, to enjoy more balanced bites.
Khashlama is a braised meat preparation that’s available with options like oxtails, short ribs and lamb shank. “Khashlama was at every table where we were commemorating the life and spirit of someone who passed,” Kazanchyan says. “It’s common for meals being served to those grieving or following a burial.” Vernatoun’s oxtail khashlama ($25) showcases cross sections stewed with potatoes, tomatoes, carrots, and peppers, resulting in tender meat that tears without much effort from bony chambers. All that inherent collagen will make your lips glisten as you eat them. The kitchen rings the plate with potato slabs dusted with red pepper.
Kazanchyan describes qavari kufta with hajar as a labor-intensive dish that’s often served during winter holidays, adding that it “wouldn’t be a steady seller abroad or when not cold.” He points out that the dried grains are available at many local Armenian markets, since pilaf — rice or grains with a little something extra like, frequently meat or vegetables — is often cooked at home.
Vernatoun’s qavari kufta with hajar ($30) requires two to four hours’ advance notice, depending on how busy it is. This “true Armenian delight,” as the menu says, is a meatloaf with a pleasant bounce; the kitchen assembles it with finely ground beef, onion, egg, and a little cognac. It is then boiled for one hour and gets sliced before serving. Each platter includes hajar, a heaping pile of Armenian grains that fall somewhere between bulgur and wheatberries, topped with sauteed mushrooms and onions.
Vartanyan described the dishes I experienced during three visits to Vernatoun as “original, special foods” from Armenia that may be available at some other Glendale restaurants, if you know where to find them, though aveluk is less common. Kebabs are also a big part of Vernatoun’s menu, and its chargrilled skewers alone would make it a destination. Pork baby back ribs ($20) feature a meaty, beautifully seared quartet served with piquant ajika — a red pepper dip better associated with Georgia that’s folded with paprika, parsley, and onion, making for a bold sauce that benefits most meats.
Lule kebabs ($15) are ground meat skewers that are noticably luscious in Vernatoun’s hands. Charcoal certainly helps. Beef and chicken (or a combination) are both available seasoned with onions and spices. Vartanyan uses chuck roll in beef lule and features chicken thigh (and sometimes some spare breast meat) for chicken lule. Vernatoun serves two juicy skewers with grilled tomato and pepper atop lavash. Each plate comes with steamed white rice, which works, but consider upgrading to tava jarit potato ($7), shimmering French fries dressed with parsley and onions.
Vernatoun is a welcome reminder that even though Los Angeles has nearly unlimited culinary diversity, as diners, we’re often just skimming the surface when it comes to different cuisines. Many restaurants often play the hits knowing they’ll appeal to a wider audience. In communities like Glendale, where Armenian culture runs so deep and diners get more of the references, it’s possible to offer larger menus. Vernatoun provides a particularly comforting portal into the Armenian home kitchen, for Armenians who have lived in the homeland as well as people of various backgrounds who have not.