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Pita Pleaser

[whitespace] The Armenian Gourmet
Christopher Gardner

Beyond Kebabs: Though skewered meats are an Armenian Gourmet standby, sauteed meats also entice regulars.

After nearly a quarter-century, the Armenian Gourmet keeps its patrons happy with kebabs and other Middle Eastern favorites

By Andrew X. Pham

ONCE IN A WHILE, we like to revisit haunts that remind us of the South Bay's yesteryears. Most places have closed or changed ownership; others aren't worth visiting. Yet a very, very few are remarkably preserved. Perhaps the best-kept of these is Armenian Gourmet, still grilling and sautéing after 24 years.

The first impression made by the dining room, our group unanimously agreed, was that it could have been lifted straight out of the defunct TV series Three's Company--any one of the fictional establishments where Jack Tripper struggled to make his mark as a chef. The space is a near-perfect cube, modestly seating 50 or 60 guests at nondescript pine chairs around tables cloaked with charmingly dated moss-green plastic tablecloths sans place mats. And the decor is equally '70s-ish: beige bath tile with matching sandy walls, framed beer-logo mirrors, mercilessly bright lighting and dubious acoustics. The flavors, however, are timeless.

Three items on the appetizer menu caught our eyes. Lahmajun ($4)--or Armenian pizza, as chef Aram Janjigian likes to call it--is a snacky pair of pitas folded over seasoned lamb that has been sautéed with a bit of tomato sauce and then quickly baked with a pinch of cheese. A small single bowl of cucumber yogurt soup ($2.50, served cold) refreshed our palate. Last to the table, puréed into a paste, the eggplant dip practically pasted itself onto the endless supply of warm pita bread which our waiter kept bringing with every water refill. Almost bitter and possibly the smokiest dip we have ever come across, this baba ghanouj seemed a likely candidate for the "acquired taste" list.

Dinner entrees come with pita and a saucer of hummus, shiny with olive oil and a dusting of paprika, and a huge salad, a major course in itself, loaded up with kalamata olives, feta cheese, lettuce, mushrooms, diced tomatoes, cucumber coins and onions.

While we were mulling over the menu and noting that it hadn't received a face lift in 24 years (probably one reason why folks flock here so regularly), our waiter paraded plate after plate of aromatic sautéed beef past our table, assuring us with a wink that it was the house's bestseller. In this very simple dish, thin sheets of grilled steak are chopped into bits along with green pepper, onion, brown mushrooms and tomatoes, and then sautéed with oregano, black pepper and garlic. The vegetables keep the beef from tasting too dry.

We had the beef as part of the John Michel Combo ($16), which included ground beef kebab and lamb kebab. This trinity was layered on a dune of pliant rice pilaf crowned by a broiled tomato. Big and juicy, the chunks of lamb were superior to the dull ground beef that had been molded into sausage shape.

Combinations were the best bargains. For instance, the first combo on the menu ($13.50) features a lovely wedge of oven-crispy cheese turnover, a fat pair of lemony sarma (poached grape leaves filled with rice and ground beef) and a slice of baked eggplant topped with a giant scoop of seasoned and sautéed ground lamb. The great variation of flavor and texture in this combo was absent in such single-minded entrees as the chicken kebab platter, which parlayed tender pieces of charbroiled chicken breast and rice pilaf into a long, monotonous discourse.

Given its enduring track record, this establishment has little reason to change, but if there were one or two things we might add to the menu, it would be a choice of basmati rice and occasional specials showcasing the more uncommon dishes of Armenian cuisine. Also, the house's adequate wine list could use a few more selections by the glass, but the huge stock of beers couldn't be bettered.

The Armenian Gourmet competently skewers a proven menu with as much verve and enthusiasm as in decades past. Here's to 20 more years of solid Armenian fare.

The Armenian Gourmet

Cuisine: Armenian, kebabs
Ambiance: Family diner
Menu: Starters $2.50-$7; entrees $12-$16 (lunch $8-$12)
Hours: Lunch Mon.-Fri. 11am-1:30pm; dinner Wed.-Sat. 5:30-9pm
Address: 929 E. Duane Ave., Sunnyvale
Phone: 408/732-3910

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From the April 23-29, 1998 issue of Metro.

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