Hummus is going through an identity crisis. Supermarket shelves are crowded with bastardized forms of the chickpea-tahini dish freighted with add-ons like roasted red pepper, black beans, and even pumpkin spice. And if it doesn’t come with unnecessary ingredients, then it’s poorly executed, as leaden as spackling paste.
Amid all these variations, the classic version at Alquds Mediterranean Grill and Grocery in the Northeast Heights feels like a revelation.
Alquds’ hummus is ethereally silky, with a buttery, slightly nutty flavor kissed with garlic and lemon and finished with a little smoked paprika and a touch of olive oil. During a recent meal there, I found myself dipping everything into it, from meaty chunks of chicken kebab to thin, curled pieces of lamb cut from a spit. Its best match, though, was with the pita bread, warm, golden brown and puffed up from the oven. The hummus was so good I briefly considered stirring a spoonful into my Arabic coffee.
Alquds – the Arabic name for Jerusalem – anchors the northwestern corner of a roughly rectangular swath in the Northeast Heights that’s home to an abundance of excellent Middle Eastern restaurants. While places like Need A Pita, Sahara Express, Chello and Café Istanbul are notched into strip malls, Alquds is in a building at San Pedro and Montgomery next to Red Lobster. Remnants of the building’s previous incarnation as a bank are evident in the drive-through stations on the east side of the building, stations that now provide the only shaded parking spaces in the lot.
Inside, half the space is given over to a grocery store, its shelves lined with boxes of tea, bottles of honey and cans of chickpeas. The restaurant half is spacious and spartan, the booths well-padded. During a recent lunch hour, Arabic music sounded from overhead speakers, drowning out the play-by-play of a college football game on the widescreen TV hanging on one wall. Two young men staffed the place, taking orders and working the grocery counter. Service was friendly and fast.
The menu has the usual assortment of filling, hearty Middle Eastern favorites such as kebabs and shawarma, with a roster of salads to prime the palate. In the Alquds salad ($5.99/$8.99), finely diced tomatoes and cucumbers fight for attention in a creamy dressing of tahini and lemon juice. The dressing, sour and bitter, wins. The diced vegetables fare better in the tabbouleh salad ($5.99/$8.99), matched with parsley, mint leaves and cracked wheat and dressed simply with lemon juice and olive oil. The subtle presence of mint and lemon made it a refreshing start to the meal.
The rest of the menu is divided into combo meals – basically, sandwiches that come with a drink and a piece of baklava – and platters consisting of a protein, a salad, two pieces of pita bread and a choice of rice or hummus. Family-size platters are just a few dollars more.
In the Gyro Platter ($11.99), the sliced lamb meat arrived piled on a plate of hummus. Folded into the accompanying pita bread, the tender, savory meat made a terrific sandwich, although I missed the sour, creamy tzatziki sauce that often comes with gyros.
The Chicken Tawook Platter ($10.99) offers a generous serving of grilled white meat kebabs over rice. It was a successful dish, the chicken pieces bearing a char from the grill that concentrated the garlic, paprika and sumac from of the marinade.
With a name like Vegetarian Extravaganza ($10.99), you expect a burst of color; instead, what you get is an earth-toned palette featuring two pieces of dolmas and falafel on a bed of rice along with hummus, baba ghanouj and tabbouleh salad. The baba ghanouj, roasted eggplant in tahini sauce, looked innocent, but it was brimming with smoke and fire. Often served cold, the dolmas here were warm, the grape leaves tender and the rice stuffing suitably lemony. The vaguely cylindrical pieces of falafel were crisp and dense, with just the right touch of heat from the cayenne pepper.
Highlights of the drink menu include a cold mint tea ($1.99) that tamps down the heat of the spicy food, and an Arabic coffee ($2.49/4.49) for which the expression “cup of mud” was never more apt. Cardamom added an intriguing, faintly menthol flavor that cut the bitterness of the thick brew without overpowering the coffee flavor. Not surprisingly, there was a lot of sediment at the bottom of the cup.
Much of the food is gluten-free. There are an assortment of sweets at the counter for dessert.
Alquds offers proof that hummus, when prepared the right way, needs no accouterments. It will spoil you for any other versions.