Scholars of the taqueria arts are well-acquainted with the taco arabe, the signature taco of the Puebla region, which is basically the Mexican version of shwarma: grilled meat shaved from the outside of a skewered cone of sliced, stacked, marinated meat, then folded into a flatbread vaguely resembling pita. The taco arabe, brought to Mexico by Lebanese immigrants in the early years of the last century, still served in every restaurant with even modest Poblano inclinations, is the ancestors of today’s ubiquitous taco al pastor.
So when the owners of Zankou, the insanely popular Lebanese-Armenian roast chicken chain, announced that they were planning on opening Ara’s Tacos on one side of their Burbank store, I immediately thought of it as a kind of culinary echo, as Middle Eastern and Mexican food cultures coming together once again. Zankou’s mastery of spit cooking is formidable, at least as evolved as that of L.A.'s current virtuosos of the trompa, and one can imagine that its chicken tarna and beef shwarma might be just as delicious tucked into tortillas as they are rolled into warm pita bread. Ara’s Tacos is set up less as a taqueria than as a kind of homage to the Chipotle chain, and the build-your-own-burrito aspect of the counter takes precedence over the tacos, but tacos are indeed possible – you get three for the price of a burrito – and they are in their way unique.
At this point, would you rather walk a few feet to the Zankou counter for a tarna wrap than get an Ara’s chicken taco? Probably. The meat is the same, crisp-edged and nicely flavored, but Zankou’s famous garlic sauce is superior to the bitterish chile salsa you get with the tacos, and the juicy chopped tomatoes seem to make more sense in the context of the Lebanese wrap. Zankou has never been known for the excellence of its pita, but it is probably better than the commercial tortillas used at Ara's. There is a certain thrill in eating tacos in a Middle Eastern restaurant – it's the combination Pizza Hut and Taco Bell of the Armenian world! – but the concept, including the gummy, bland burritos, perhaps needs rejiggering. Could the tarna taco be made to work? Of course! The taco arabe, which was originally made with tough scraps of mutton, was probably pretty bad at first too.
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