Steve Iskenderian, 34, is hoping that customers will line up for Mexican-flavored, spit-roasted chicken and beef the way they do for Zankou's chicken tarna and beef shawerma when his new restaurant opens next week.
It shares a building with a Zankou restaurant, which Iskenderian co-owns, at 901 W. Glenoaks Blvd. in Glendale.
As a half-dozen fresh-faced new hires took turns practicing dishing up the perfect taco portion of steak and attempting to master the art of rolling a burrito, Iskenderian explained that the genesis for Ara's Tacos came last fall when he learned that the space's former owner, Sidewalk Café, was going out of business.
“I was confident in the location,” he said. “I saw it as an opportunity to diversify our portfolio, so to speak. Why put all our eggs in one basket?”
Iskenderian said he considered taking the Sidewalk Café and revamping the salads-and-sandwiches concept. Instead, he chose a concept he liked — Chipotlé Mexican Grill — and improved on it.
“I eat at Chipotlé, I respect what they did, but there's more room in the playing field,” he said. “I thought, I could do it better — better food, more authentic food.”
Iskenderian said he felt confident that because of his experience managing food operations at Zankou locations, he could beat Chipotlé at its own game.
Ara's Tacos will use chickens from L.A. Poultry, Zankou's supplier, and beef from Canyon Wholesale Provisions. Like at Zankou, whole fresh chickens will be deboned and marinated at the restaurant, Iskenderian said.
Iskenderian co-owns nine Zankou Chicken restaurants with his mother, Rita Iskenderian, and his three brothers — including the new restaurant's namesake, Ara. However, he is the sole owner of the new enterprise.
What distinguishes Ara's Tacos from similar restaurants, Iskenderian said, is freshness of ingredients, and the use of the slow-rotisserie cooking techniques that have driven Zankou's success. Although many taco trucks use spits to make al pastor pork tacos, Iskenderian said he's doing something different.
“It's shawerma style, but with Mexican spices,” he said. “Who out there is doing chicken al pastor style?”