Properly served, hummus is a grand thing to see. A cook scoops pale yellow paste into a shallow brick-colored bowl and then stirs it madly with a mortar, forcing it up against the sides of the bowl in a thick, luxurious coil.
Ostensibly, this is for your convenience, because you can scoop genteelly from the wall of hummus erected for you. But it also shows off the quality. If the paste is too thick, it won’t form that glamorous coil. Too slack, and it slumps shamefully.
There’s a lot of hummus in our town, particularly in the San Fernando Valley, which has seen wave after wave of immigrant nationalities. How does Valley hummus stack up, as it were? I recently checked out 30 restaurants and cafes to find out.
The Valley’s hummus scene is based on three main Middle Eastern ethnic clusters. A lot of Armenians live in Glendale and Burbank. Many are from the Republic of Armenia, where hummus is scarcely known, but others are from western Armenia, often by way of Syria or Lebanon, and they have clear-cut hummus tastes. There are a few Lebanese places in North Hollywood and Valley Village. Israeli restaurants cluster on Ventura Boulevard in Encino and Tarzana. Half a dozen more Armenian places are scattered through the mid-Valley, from North Hollywood to Sherman Oaks, along with two Lebanese places, and there’s an Israeli nightclub in Studio City.
Here’s where I’m coming from as a hummusivore. I first tasted it back in the ‘60s when I was studying in Lebanon, a very quiet place at the time. In principle, none of the ingredients was exotic -- I’d certainly tasted chickpeas (though not pureed), sesame seeds (though not ground to a paste called tahini), lemon juice and garlic -- but the combination seemed original and gratifying.
And there was more to hummus than those pureed ingredients. When the cook was done stirring it around, the bottom of the serving bowl was nearly bare, leaving room for a garnish. Different Middle Eastern cities, I found, had different tastes in the garnish department.
Beirut had a rather classical preference, just a couple of whole chickpeas and a spoonful or two of good local olive oil (I understand that Beirutis are tending to finish if off with a sprinkle of paprika these days), or maybe toasted pine nuts. In Tripoli, they would substitute toasted walnuts and melted butter. Some restaurants (too pricey for the student’s budget I was on) were reputed to top hummus with richer things such as roast meat.
A few years later, health foodies discovered hummus and popularized it far and wide, just as they did with falafel and tabbouleh. Its attractions for them were obvious. Hummus was a vegetarian source of protein, it had a rich flavor, it was exotic.
As a result of their efforts, you can now get hummus -- or something like it -- at lots of restaurants and snack stands, even in supermarkets. But it’s still hard to find good hummus.
The problem, I think, is that health foodies were dazzled by the nutritional value of chickpeas and sesame seeds and went overboard on those two ingredients, doing violence to the aesthetic of the dish. Health-food hummus has nearly always been too thick with chickpeas, with far too much tahini flavoring and nowhere near enough lemon juice. It tends to scant the garlic flavor too, though there’s difference of opinion about how much garlic to use even in the Middle East.
Hummus really needs a sharp note of lemon juice to counteract the flat, faintly bitter effect of the chickpeas. And too much tahini not only overwhelms the other flavors, but also makes the hummus heavy and gummy.
Crossover hummus ignores the garnish aspect of the Middle Eastern dish while the culinary avant-garde seems to feel unfairly constrained by the traditional recipe. Now some fusion restaurants are giving us edamame hummus or sun-dried tomato hummus -- undermining the whole idea because hummus is the Arabic word for chickpea -- while commercial producers are adding flavors such as horseradish and kalamata olive. Some of these experiments are interesting, but I suspect if they ever tasted the real thing, most chefs would reconsider messing with the fine balance of flavors and texture that is the classic hummus recipe.
On my hummus quest in the Valley, I was looking for rich-textured hummus with a good balance of chickpea, lemon and sesame flavors, preferably with a subtle note of garlic, though I was OK with variations if the cooks seemed to know what they were doing. I didn’t bother with many Greek or Iranian places, because in my experience they tend to be unclear on the hummus concept (one prominent exception: Raffi’s Place in Glendale).
To tell the truth, though, Middle Eastern ancestry doesn’t necessarily mean you make good hummus. According to its website, the Zankou Chicken chain, which was founded in Beirut, puts no lemon in its boring hummus. Maybe it’s afraid of upstaging its roast chicken.
A distinct geographical pattern emerged. Lemon juice is more likely to be underplayed in the west end of the Valley (though not everywhere; Sassi, for one, does a good job). But in Burbank and Glendale, nearly every hummus is distinctly tart -- in fact, Kotayk Kabob Deli in Burbank and Elena’s Greek and Armenian Food in Glendale may even take the tartness thing a little too far.
I didn’t find the hummus of my dreams, but I did come across some very good ones, a nicely rounded Top 10 worth seeking out.
Ambience and flavor
IN terms of texture, the best was clearly the regular hummus at Alcazar in Encino, though I thought it could have used a dash more lemon. With its high ceilings, airy patio and handsome Lebanese decor, Alcazar is probably the best hummus-eating location in the Valley -- it exudes that Mediterranean feeling that time ceases to exist when you’re noshing with friends.
Cedar House Cafe in Valley Village, a lively Lebanese hangout with a cheery belly dancer in the evenings, makes a slightly thinner hummus with a better balance of flavors. Uniquely, it gives you chips of crisp toasted lavash bread as well as pita, and it positively loads you with condiments: tomatoes, pickled turnips, pickled peppers and olives.
The fairly new Van Nuys cafe Noah’s Ark also makes well-balanced hummus with a creamy texture, emphasizing the sesame flavor but contriving not to be heavy; it’s garnished with green olives as well as olive oil. The cuisine is mostly a mixture of eastern and western Armenian dishes, served in a room embellished with a wall-filling mural of Noah descending from Mt. Ararat after the great flood.
Two smaller, humbler places show that you can have a very distinctive flavor and still belong to the classic hummus tradition. Kilikia in Glendale, located up a couple of steps from the street, feels like some kind of secret clubhouse (I’ve never seen it full) and makes a unique hummus, showing a good balance of chickpeas, lemon and garlic with one additional flavor: a lot of cumin. Odd, but successful.
Chicken Al-Wazir, also in Glendale, is your basic ethnic storefront, only more ambitious, with beaded lampshades and a musical soundtrack. Its hummus has a faintly smoky, chunky effect, but Larissa Bedrosyan, who makes it, says the only ingredients are the usual chickpeas, tahini, garlic and lemon, plus a little vegetable oil. Maybe the secret is in the wrist.
“Everybody puts hummus together a little different,” says owner Victor Tahmazyan, who stresses the importance of fresh garlic.
For me, Alcazar, Carousel (in Glendale) and Cedar House are in a category of their own because they offer those rich toppings of shawarma or sausages or toasted pine nuts that I couldn’t afford when I was a college kid. All these places are basically doing the right thing. They’re pointing a direction -- a direction that does not lead down the path to sun-dried tomato hummus.
Place the soaked and drained chickpeas in a saucepan and cover with plenty of fresh water. Bring to a boil; skim, add one-half teaspoon salt, cover, and cook over medium heat, about 1 1/2 hours, until the chickpeas are very soft.
Meanwhile, crush the garlic and one-half teaspoon salt in a mortar until pureed. Transfer the puree to the work bowl of a food processor, add the sesame seed paste and lemon juice and process until white and contracted. Add one-half cup cold water and process until completely smooth.
Drain the chickpeas, reserving the cooking liquid. Add the chickpeas to the sesame paste mixture and process until well blended. For a smoother texture, press the mixture through the fine blade of a food mill. Thin to desired consistency with reserved chickpea liquid. Adjust the seasoning with salt and lemon juice. (The hummus can be kept in a tightly closed jar in the refrigerator for up to a week.) Serve chilled or at room temperature; sprinkle with a pinch of paprika and parsley and drizzle with oil.
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