One of my longtime culinary pursuits is a hunt for the perfect hummus. I’ve pared a long list of contending recipes down to a worthy few and tried countless variations on my two or three favorites. Whether or not I’ve mastered the art of the chickpea dip is an open question. But I have unlocked, I believe, the science.
Here, for the first time, I’ll reveal what I’ve learned. First, there are plenty of ways to ruin hummus. Too much garlic, for instance—in fact, too much of any one spice. But outside of straight-up miscalculation, there’s really only one essential factor that determines how any particular batch of hummus will taste: the balance of tahini and lemon.
When it’s weighted toward tahini, the hummus will be creamy and thick; as it slides toward the lemon end of the scale, it gets lighter and zestier. Which is better is a matter of opinion, but there is definitely a balance to be struck: too much tahini with too little lemon, and the result is Middle Eastern peanut butter. Too much lemon with too little tahini, and the acidity leaves it pretty much inedible.
The quality of its hummus can make or break a Middle Eastern or Mediterranean restaurant; like the burrito is to a taqueria, it’s sort of a barometer dish. But rarely does any place have big enough garbanzos to put the dish in its name.
Oren’s Hummus Shop in Palo Alto, however, does. The name is a little tricky, since some might assume this is simply a brick-and-mortar backing for a line of hummus products. But in fact, it’s a sit-down spot on University Avenue, taking over the space formerly occupied by Zao Noodles.
Another misconception might be that diners walk in to find a million varieties of hummus. This is a sad byproduct of the commercial brands of hummus that spin off 20 different flavors, perhaps to mask the fact that they can’t get their basic recipe right. But it’s not hard to guess that an establishment that has proudly painted on its inside wall “Finally an authentic Israeli restaurant in the Silicon Valley” is having none of that.
No, there’s really only one type of hummus served up at Oren’s—and it’s amazing. Though it can be purchased as “plain hummus,” it’s found on the menu in its purest form as “classic hummus.” One can get it prepared several ways: with a big helping of seasoned ground beef in the center, or mushrooms, etc. But for true hummus lovers, I have to recommend going straight to the classic. Somehow, this dish defies hummus physics: perfectly creamy, with a thick base of tahini, so much so that the lemony quality is almost more of a finish. And yet, neither too heavy nor sticky. It’s a divine match with the fresh and surprisingly fluffy pita that the servers at Oren’s deliver as needed.
Besides the hummus, there are several other dishes that work well as small plate options to be shared. The sampler ($8.95) includes six of these. The matbutcha—a Morrocan reduction of tomatoes, garlic and spices—tastes more like a sauce that should go on something else and is a bit bland for a dip. The steamed carrots and pickled beets don’t wow, either. But the labane, which is strained yogurt cheese topped with olive oil and za’atar spice, is superb. And the babaganoush is perfectly smoky, as is the closely related Romanian eggplant dip.
Some might like more options on the menu, but clearly Oren’s wants to pick a few things and do them well. And there are surprises to be found, like the sweet potato fries that have just the right mix of outside crunch with a tender interior (and, unlike most sweet potato fries, aren’t too oily or salty).
Oren’s puts its mission statement in its name, and it lives up to it. The hummus is excellent, and from the amount of traffic it’s already getting in its small but efficient spot on University, people are responding to its approach. Perhaps I’m not the only one on a search for the perfect hummus.