Manghal: In Praise of Authentic, Inexpensive Armenian Cuisine

The first time I had Armenian cuisine was exactly six years ago, when I'd recently transplanted to Lebanon. My friends raved of a cozy corner newly opened in Mar Mikhael, and in no time, we became regulars. The novelty of bulgur-intensive itch, kebab with cherries, and the dumpling-yogurt-sumac trifecta called mante left me totally speechless.

As my knowledge of the Beirut culinary grid improved, I branched out to more established footholds, namely Mayrig. Soon thereafter, sibling venue Batchig launched in Antelias, boasting a modern interpretation of classic dishes at more affordable prices.

By the time Onno expanded to Hamra and Badaro in the format of a franchised bistro, I could start to discern differences in taste, method of preparation, and presentation across Armenian eateries. My opinions on which did what better had evolved to confident conclusions.

And this was one of them: authentic, inexpensive, downright delicious Armenian food is hard to come by in Beirut. The favorite options are guilty of being pricy, inconsistent, or a combination thereof. As soon as you start to cultivate faith in one, it deteriorates in quality and generosity, and you find yourself swearing it off altogether.

A classic Armenian spread always features mante

A few weeks ago, a solid lead found us scouting the Zalka area for a joint called Manghal (Armenian for “grill”). I didn’t know quite what to expect, given that the location described over the phone was the first floor of a business complex.

It actually took some time before we reached Manghal, which you might easily mistake for a “snack” (aka hole in the wall) with its five wooden tables situated on the veranda walkway. This restaurant can seat 15 guests at best, and the menu resembles a pamphlet.

Before we could hesitate over what to order, Patrick came to our succor and offered to take the reins. We happily acceded.

First to emerge were the mini rolls (1,500 LL/piece), a blend of cheese with one of two Armenian meat specialties, cured basterma and homemade soujouk. This gooey goodness comes tucked inside a delicate shell lightly battered to a crisp and serving as a transporter. To say that these rolls are exceptional would be inaccurate, because everything to follow was equally exceptional. So it goes that superior taste, flavor and quality are the general rule at Manghal.

Spicy kibbeh patties and mini cheese-and-meat rolls

Spicy kibbeh patties with cheese (2,000 LL/piece) dip marvelously in the house-made roasted red-pepper paste, whose color deceptively denotes fiery but whose taste is reassuringly mild.

The mante (14,000 LL), typically reserved for last, landed on our table along with these palate pleasers, and I was thrilled it did. Manghal rejects the manicured concentric arrangement of these tiny dumplings on which other Armenian establishments pride themselves emphatically. Instead, a liberal helping of meat-stuffed pockets laden with tomato paste are loaded onto a round metal tray, accompanied by saucers of sumac and thick homemade yogurt. Each combination of these three elements produces a totally unique dish, owing to the interplay of texture, heat index, and taste.

Crunchy mante with plain yogurt and sumac

We could have agreed to end our meal here, but Patrick had a different agenda. Next up, arayess kafta and arayess soujouk, or minced meat between two pita bread slathered with pepper paste and adhered together with molten cheese. Bizarrely enough, the bread was neither greasy nor soggy, as arayess are wont to be.

Arayess kafta and arayess soujouk

Patrick then presented what he termed “Soujouk Volcano,” an apt description for an explosion of the beautifully spiced beef freed from its casing and basking in tomato sauce with roasted onions. It comes smothered with piping hot cheese and evokes the arayess soujouk contents emancipated from the carb envelope. We wiped out that pan in five minutes flat.

Soujouk Volcano

The cherry on top was incidentally kebab with cherry (fishna kebab), but at this point we were too stuffed to thoroughly enjoy them. What I can indulge you is that the cherries are reduced over heat and allowed to simmer in their own tangy sweetness. Contrast that with the savory aromas of the beef fingers, and you’ve got an irresistible combination.

Beef kebabs with cooked cherries

Once you get past the modest feel of Manghal, whose slogan is “Let’s Meat Up,” brace yourself for an outpouring of love, passion, and feeling in every dish that comes your way. It is clear that owner Kevork (or Kevo) labors to make guests feel at home, and it is his welcoming disposition that renders Manghal a meeting point for family and friends. Patrick, as we eventually learned, is a customer turned comrade, and it is those blurred lines between guest and pal that make Manghal a second home for many.

That, and Wednesday's all-you-can-eat mante, itch and Ayran for just US$ 23! 

Breezevale House Tower, 1st floor
Open M-Sa 12 pm - 11 pm; Su 12 pm - 6 pm


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