Apr 19, 2024


Zankou Chicken has shared its beloved family recipes across Los Angeles through its locations in Downtown and the San Gabriel Valley.

From its humble origins as a street corner restaurant in Beirut, Lebanon, Zankou Chicken has grown into an iconic Southern California eatery about to open its 13th location.

Having opened its first restaurant in the Lebanese capital in the early 1960s serving only chicken, the Iskenderian family made culinary history from the moment it opened its doors. The restaurant, then named Zankou after a river in Armenia, was the first to serve chicken with garlic sauce. Its garlic sauce is now world-famous and has spawned many imitators.

The family eventually escaped a civil war in Lebanon and resettled in the Los Angeles area where it opened its first U.S. location on Sunset and Normandie in 1984. Zankou Chicken’s menu, physical locations and popularity expanded rapidly from that point forward. The one constant is that the Iskenderian family has continued to own and operate the franchise.

The menu relies on family recipes and fresh, never frozen, high-quality ingredients such as locally sourced vegetables. Touching on Armenian, Mediterranean and Middle Eastern culinary traditions, it features not only rotisserie chicken served as plates and pita wraps, but also shawarma, shish kabobs, falafel, salads and bowls.

“Because we put so much care into each and every single menu item and the quality of the food, you are getting five-star food for medium and average prices,” said Dikran Iskenderian, Zankou Chicken’s marketing director.

“You’re not paying more than $20 a person when you eat at Zankou Chicken. Some sit-down kabob restaurants are charging $30 for the exact same thing. So, with us you’re getting a very high value.”

Iskenderian cites several examples of the ways in which Zankou distinguishes itself from other restaurants that serve similar cuisine.

“We treat the food with special importance,” he said.

“We hand dice the parsley that goes into the tabouli salad, for example. We hand dice the tomatoes. We don’t use a machine because you get a watered-down effect. Even the lemonade is made by hand, and we put into it mint juice that is juiced by hand. Not many restaurants do that. We care about everything we do.”

Beyond its superior ingredients, multigenerational family recipes and thoughtful food preparation, the restaurant distinguishes itself with how it cooks its food. The cooking process for kabobs does not begin until an order is placed. Nothing is pre-cooked and left sitting until someone buys it.

Zankou’s chicken is cooked rotisserie style in a manner that allows the chicken to marinate in its own juices which makes for a crispier skin with a rich texture.

If there is one signature dish that represents the way in which the eatery differentiates itself from others, it might be its chicken tarna, a trademarked marinated chicken shawarma dish named for the Armenian verb “to turn” that Iskenderian describes as “moist and delicious.”

“Some Greek places usually have one big stack of meat that is premade frozen and they just start cooking it,” he said. “For us, it’s not like that. We never freeze it. It’s hand-sliced marinated in natural herbs and spices. And then we hand layer it. It’s not just one big piece of meat. Ours doesn’t give you heartburn because it’s so fresh and juicy and that’s why people love it. That’s the difference between us and a typical shawarma place.”

By serving high-quality food at affordable prices, Zankou Chicken has earned itself media recognition and even several pop culture references.

Just in the past year, it has been voted Best Chicken by Downtown LA News’ readers and Best Fast Food in California by Food and Wine Magazine. The restaurant has been referenced in multiple television shows and even in a song by Beck.

Far from resting on its laurels, Zankou Chicken has always been an innovator that sometimes chooses to zig where others zag. When it first opened its doors in Los Angeles, the only types of shawarmas locals could order in restaurants were limited to lamb and beef. But just as the family had pioneered the combination of chicken and garlic sauce decades before, it made Southern California reimagine the way a shawarma could be served.

Unlike some other dishes, Zankou Chicken did not invent the chicken shawarma, but “we for sure popularized it in LA,” Iskenderian said. “Before us, no one was doing that. They were doing lamb and beef, but there weren’t people doing chicken.”

Having opened in locations such as Pasadena more than three decades ago and Downtown Los Angeles just two years ago, Zankou chicken is about to be welcomed by its 13th and newest community, Long Beach. The new location is set to open in August. It is a testament to the business’ ability to navigate recent serious challenges to the industry to have reached this point at all.

During the nadir of the COVID-19 pandemic in 2020, numerous businesses were forced to close their doors to in-person customers. Iskenderian said that Zankou Chicken was fortunate not to have locations in malls.

“All of my friends with restaurants in the malls suffered tremendously because they literally could not work for two months because the malls were shut down,” he said.

Prior to the pandemic, Zankou Chicken did about 30% of its business with dine-in customers and 70% with to-go orders. It had only worked with one delivery service, Postmates (since acquired by Uber Eats) when it suddenly was faced with an existential threat to its business.

“We made deals with the delivery companies within a week because we didn’t want to just sit and fumble our thumbs,” Iskenderian said. “We were forced to work with all the delivery companies because delivery became very, very, prominent very, very fast. Not every restaurant did that. They didn’t want to change. And I think the ones that didn’t want to change are the ones that died.”

It was not long after pandemic-induced shutdowns ended that a new threat arose in the restaurant industry. A significant spike in food inflation forced a dilemma upon Zankou Chicken: raise prices or cut corners on ingredients. In the end, the choice was simple for a restaurant that has built its reputation on quality.

“We never want to go cheaper,” Iskenderian said. “We’re getting high quality meat from American farms and we never use anything frozen. Unfortunately, sometimes we raise the price a little bit. It’s something we have to do to maintain the high quality.”

With beef and chicken prices starting to abate, the decision not to shortchange customers with lesser ingredients appears all the wiser.

Zankou Chicken’s ability to adapt, survive and thrive when faced with recent industrywide challenges is good news for foodies in Southern California. The Iskenderian family’s recipe of fresh ingredients, healthy food, delicious flavor, reasonable prices and great service will continue to be served to one generation after another of families throughout the region.

Zankou Chicken

611 S. Seventh Street, Los Angeles


1415 E. Colorado Street, Glendale


1296 E. Colorado Boulevard, Pasadena


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Zankou Chicken611 S. Seventh Street, Los Angeles213-550-34551415 E. Colorado Street, Glendale818-244-22371296 E. Colorado Boulevard, Pasadena626-405-1502zankouchicken.comthis week's issue.DTLA Guide.Best of Downtown LA.