The waitress is trying to explain blinchik. "Have you ever been to IHOP?" she asks. "They've got something like it on their menu. Except ours isn't sweet."
Could she be right? Am I to believe that, alongside pigs in a blanket, omelets and French toast, the fabled pancake chain has blinchik, an Armenian staple of fried dough stuffed with seasoned ground beef? She can tell I'm not buying it.
She tries again. "It's like a giant egg roll, but not Chinese."
15820 North 35th Avenue, Phoenix
Moscow salad: $4.95
Lamb kebab sandwich: $6.95
602-863-3300. Lunch and dinner, Monday through Saturday, 11 a.m. to 11 p.m
These aren't familiar dishes, the kachapuri, the julyen, the jajik and the tabaka. Considering that most Valley diners have never experienced Armenian cuisine before, though, I'll bet she spends a lot of time helping first-timers like me navigate the menu. Yet it turns out that, despite the exotic names, a lot of this food can be compared to dishes we know and love. Think lots of meat-stuffed fried dough or phyllo pockets; pickled salads; stews; and dishes borrowing from Mediterranean influences. That kachapuri is phyllo stuffed with feta or chicken and mushrooms. Julyen is a rib-sticking soufflé of chicken, mushrooms, eggs and cheese. Jajik is chopped cucumber in garlic yogurt, and tabaka is little more than Cornish game hen with potatoes and mushrooms.
What my waitress is trying to tell me about blinchik is that the fried dough is just a pancake crepe, like the berry-stuffed kind at IHOP, minus the sugar. The egg roll part refers to the shape, but these wraps are griddled, not deep-fried. They're good if not riveting, the meat indiscernibly spiced, served alongside a crisp chop of romaine, onion and red pepper in a modest oil dressing.
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Armenians are big on kebabs, and the selection here covers all the standards with finesse: juicy chicken, pork, lamb and luleh (rolled and skewered ground beef). Sometimes my well-meaning waitress is almost too helpful, though, offering to change anything and everything. I can have my kebab as a sandwich special, served with fries and a drink. This is what I've ordered. But, she continues, I can also get it un-sandwiched, served with chicken pilaf, grilled tomato and pepper. Or, I can just get a kebab à la carte. We negotiate: I get my sandwich, and it's terrific, packed with tender seasoned lamb, ripe tomato, crisp onion and big leaves of cilantro in a fluffy grilled pita pillow.
Chicken soup I can figure out on my own, and it's a satisfying broth stocked with carrot, potato, red pepper, tomato, skinny noodles and fresh herbs. Just what a Moscow salad is, though, remains a mystery until it arrives. Then it turns out to be just a variation of a popular Russian dish, a marvelously effective marriage of shredded beef, potato, hard-boiled egg, pickle chunks, peas and onion in a light coat of sour cream.
Armenia's decor, meanwhile, doesn't translate into any language. It's a complex collection of taxidermied pheasants and goats, a white trellis ceiling hung with Happy Birthday banners, Christmas garlands, multicolor strobe lights, a giant brick oven, and a display case of liquors in wildly shaped bottles (the brandy in the vessel crafted like an elaborate stiletto shoe is a keeper).
IHOP may be International, in other words, but Armenia Restaurant is a world of its own.