Armen Martirosyan Creates a New Legacy

At Mideast Tacos in LA, the Armenian-American chef honors tradition in his family and city to build something uniquely his own

If Armen Martirosyan has ever cooked for you, chances are he remembers your name. On a given afternoon at his buzzing Silverlake restaurant, MidEast Tacos, the 34-year-old can be found behind the counter slinging falafel tacos while chatting with customers. Making connections comes naturally to the chef, who has spent his entire life in the hospitality business.

“At six years old, I was wrapping mini kabobs,” he says, recalling his childhood in the kitchen of his parents’ celebrated eatery.

Located on a residential block in Armen’s hometown of Glendale, California – the beating heart of the Armenian diaspora in Los Angeles County – Mini Kabob is something of a local institution. For nearly three decades, his parents Ovakim and Alvard Martirosyan have been churning out some of the most sought-after grilled meats in Southern California, with customers even traveling from other states to sample their succulent ground beef lule kabob and fire-roasted eggplant spread.

Ovakim and Alvard immigrated to Los Angeles from Armenia in 1987 and began working around the clock to make ends meet. Armen’s mother sold homemade baked goods and cleaned houses, and his father spent days as a clothing vendor in the garment district and nights as a line cook.

“There were a lot of things that we were doing as an immigrant family to try to make [life] make sense for us,” Armen says.

Eager to channel their passion for cooking into an entrepreneurial venture, Armen’s parents purchased Mini Kabob from the restaurant’s original owner in 1995. The menu evolved to reflect the diverse culinary traditions present in the Martirosyan family’s migration story.

Armen’s paternal great grandparents – born in Armenian communities in the Ottoman Empire, now in present-day Turkey – fled as refugees from the 1915 Armenian Genocide to Egypt, where they remained for four decades before moving to Soviet Armenia. Ovakim, the gregarious patriarch of Mini Kabob, perfected family recipes for Middle Eastern staples like hummus and basmati rice pilaf, and dishes typical to Armenia such as barbecued pork tenderloin and pan-fried chicken cutlet.

“He’s instilled the processes and everything from A to Z on how to tend to the product itself,” Armen says of his father’s meticulous approach. “That’s what I’ve learned from him.”

The young chef joined Mini Kabob in 2014 with the goal of ushering a beloved mom-and-pop shop into the digital age. Armen mastered both his father’s recipes and guerilla marketing strategies, revamping Mini Kabob’s online presence and becoming the public face of the brand. Under his leadership, the New York Times named the kabob house one of its 50 best restaurants in America.

Despite the accolades, the entrepreneur felt an itch to create something uniquely his own. While experimenting with recipes one weekend, Armen assembled what he and his friends playfully dubbed the “Alibaba” burrito. Wrapped in lavash and packed with tabbouleh, pickled vegetables, and barbecued meats, the initial iteration needed refining, but Armen knew that he had landed on a singular and crave-worthy item.

MidEast Tacos launched as a pop-up in 2017, and quickly amassed a cult following for its sumac-dusted steak tacos and quesadillas stuffed with charcoal-grilled chicken thigh. Fusion cooking has long been integral to the culinary landscape of Los Angeles, and the Armenian-Mexican concept builds on that rich tradition.

“This is the most L.A. thing you can get which is a mix of two cultures, especially big cultures that are represented in Los Angeles,” Armen says.

Armen’s fondness for Mexican food began while eating street tacos as a child – a quintessential Angeleno experience. As a chef years later, he nurtured that interest through several trips to Mexico, where he connected even more deeply with the hospitality culture.

“We like open fires. Typically, everybody’s involved. It’s very family oriented. We like to drink and eat,” Armen says, describing the many similarities between Armenian and Mexican cuisine. “When you combine the two, it’s like the perfect fit.”

While developing the menu at MidEast Tacos, Armen looked to fellow chefs for guidance, including Wes Avila, founder of Guerilla Tacos, whose salsas heavily inspired his own. For cooking techniques, he often referenced Ad Hoc at Home by Thomas Keller. Husband-and-wife duo Andrew and Michelle Munoz of Moo’s Craft Barbecue introduced Armen to Kernel of Truth Organics masa, which he uses for the house-made corn tortillas.

“Kobe Bryant took his style of basketball from Michael Jordan,” Armen says. “As a chef, you do the same. You learn from other chefs.”

Following years of searching for the perfect spot and fine-tuning recipes, MidEast Tacos debuted as a brick-and-mortar in January on a coveted corner of Sunset Boulevard. While dining on the palm tree-lined sidewalk, customers can admire a mural by local artist Jayson Valencia, who combined Armenian and Aztec motifs to honor the restaurant’s multicultural origins.

Armen’s business partner and MidEast Tacos co-founder Aram Kavoukjian says the duo selected their Silverlake location with the neighborhood’s eclectic character in mind.

“You have a demographic over there that is open to something different,” Aram says.

An obsessive over quality, Armen has taken to ordering from his own restaurant under a variety of cheeky aliases – from Ja Rule to Jimmy Neutron. This practice reflects what Armen’s team members describe as his unmatched work ethic and consistency. He wants diners to feel proud of spending their money at MidEast Tacos, saying, “one customer that’s not satisfied here is not acceptable.”

“One thing that most people don’t know is how hard he works,” Aram says. “He’s always working on ways to improve the product.”

Armen’s wife Katya Martirosyan views this deep care and attentiveness to customer experience as products of his upbringing. She says her husband’s most important goal as a son and business owner has long been to retire his parents.

“He’s seen his parents work really hard all his life. His mom, when they came, they didn’t have money, so she was working as a housecleaner, and he would go with her to all of these houses and that instilled a lot of humility in him,” Katya says. “That also translates into why he’s so caring about people.”

Katya first met Armen while dining at Mini Kabob in 2016, and they became partners in life and business years later, mirroring the trajectory of Armen’s own parents. Katya oversees finances and backend operations for the family’s growing roster of restaurant locations.

Armen has big dreams for MidEast Tacos, with eventual aspirations to expand the concept internationally. When asked about his motivations as a chef and entrepreneur, the great grandchild of genocide survivors says he hopes to become an ambassador for the Armenian culture, honoring his heritage while creating a new legacy.

“One day hopefully we’re standing up tall, I want people to say, ‘Damn. This business, MidEast Tacos, is founded by Armenians,’” Armen says. “I will remember the history but also push forward. Because that’s what we need to do now, more than ever.”