The road to Nomiis (which means “no meat” in Armenian), a pop-up sensation serving vegan takes on traditional Lebanese dishes, began 14 years ago when Maral Sabounjian opened a Lebanese bakery and cafe called Man’oushee in Santa Clarita. The menu was inspired by her Armenian father’s recipes that included hummus, falafel, baba ghanoush, and sandwiches. Maral’s two daughters, Natasha and Sossee, have been involved with the business since its founding. While they initially only lent a hand during weekends, the sisters eventually worked on weekdays too, sharing in the hardships and triumphs of running a small family business and introducing deeply personal dishes to the local community.
Nomiis serves its menu every Wednesday at Boomtown Brewery in the Arts District and on Fridays at Party Beer Co. in West Adams. By next year, Maral and Sosse hope to sell their popular meatless wares from a food truck. For now, find the Sabounjians twice each week at Vegan Playground’s night markets.
On the menu are fried “chicken” burgers and wings, kebab plates, and shawarma sandwiches and fries. While the marinades are prepared in a commercial kitchen in Van Nuys, every order is grilled and finished on-site, whether wrapped in warmed pita bread or drizzled with zhug hot sauce. The Sabounjians make the temporary setup work with portable grills and cooking vessels, as well as plenty of biodegradable cardboard plates. When orders are ready, Sosse uses a bright pink loudspeaker to call customers’ names. The best-selling “lamb” shawarma served with baba ghanoush, pickled beets, and hummus attracts customers from across the Southland.
Natasha’s decision to adopt a vegan diet in 2018 to improve her health led to a number of major changes in her personal and family life, as well as the business. “I educated myself on nutrition and realized I [personally] did not need animal products to thrive,” she says. “I wish I had done it much sooner.” Sosse followed in her sister’s footsteps and adopted a plant-based diet in October 2019. “Natasha and Sosse refused to eat the dishes that I was making at home. They refused to eat meat,” says Maral. “I got so concerned that I took them to see a doctor to make sure that they are getting enough nutrients and protein.” After learning about some of the potential benefits for her own health of consuming a vegan diet, along with the harms of industrial agriculture, Maral gave up eating meat as well.
The Sabounjian’s newly adopted lifestyle was met with raised eyebrows within their social circles. “Our Armenian friends don’t really understand it when I tell them that I am vegan. They think that I am eating only salad,” says Maral. “Everyone around me was confused, [not knowing] how they are going to be friends with me. It’s like taking myself completely [out of] society.” Over time, Maral and her daughters showed their friends and relatives that they could still make the same delicious food they were known for, even without meat. “Everything is centered around food in our culture,” says Sosse.
The first Lebanese dish Maral made vegan was the beef shawarma — a pita sandwich filled with slow-roasted meat (beef, chicken, or lamb), tomatoes, onions, and tahini. The plant-based version is made with a mixture of seitan and chickpeas flavored with herbs and spices including cumin, garlic, and Aleppo pepper. After a great deal of trial and error to refine the proper amount of seitan, meatless versions of kebab and lamb followed next. “It’s a big learning curve; it’s like science,” says Maral. While mimicking a meaty texture took some experimenting, Maral found that copying a dish’s flavor profile was easier with the bevy of spices in her pantry. Nomiis continues to make all of its proteins from scratch.
The next step was veganizing dessert. The mother-daughter team came up with a custard baklava made from flaky filo dough, coconut or soy milks, and crushed pistachios. The dessert, which was a bestseller at the cafe, is just as popular at Nomiis, which prepares 12 pounds of it daily.
The new vegan menu, which was introduced at the Santa Clarita Veg Fest in 2019, generated a solid customer base at Man’oushee. While some regulars were vegan, others just wanted more plant-based fare or were trying to “cut down on meat,” says Sosse. Man’oushee stopped serving meat altogether in 2019, even though the vegan menu was more labor-intensive and less cost-effective to prepare.
Running Man’oushee became too exhausting for Maral and Sosse in 2021 due to pandemic-related staffing difficulties, so they decided to explore a pop-up business model and catering instead. Right before closing the restaurant, the Sabounjians received an order from Lizzo to cater a party, which led to another catering gig with SZA. These two events garnered tremendous exposure for Nomiis, gaining them new fans from Long Beach to Calabasas.
Now at the weekly Vegan Playground events, Nomiis cooks for 100 people in only three hours, which is roughly the same number of customers Man’oushee served during an entire day of business. Maral and Sosse are planning to move their business to a food truck by March of 2023, which will allow Nomiis a more mobile platform to share its vision of vegan cuisine with Angelenos. With their flavorful interpretations of traditional Lebanese cuisine, the Sabounjians prove that cooking with meat isn’t essential for continuing cultural traditions. “We’ve adapted our family recipes to suit how we like to eat at home and what we have available to us,” says Sosse. “Just like our family and ancestors did through generations.”