When I want to eat light and bright, I head for the Middle East. Hummus, a puree of chickpeas enriched with ground sesame seeds and pointed up with garlic and lemon, is familiar to many.
Fewer people venture to babaganoush, smoky roasted eggplant given a similar treatment. Lots of people like the ground chickpea fritters called falafel, especially the better versions, bronzed nuggets green with herbs inside, practically fluffy. Salads of cucumber, tomato and onion simply dressed with olive oil and lemon, or parsley-based tabouli add color and vitamins. That's all vegan, and practically healthy.
It may seem oh-so-rich for this foie gras hound to drag mortality into a restaurant review, but we all have to eat to live, so I'll say this once: If life expectancy rates ever factor into your dining decisions, consider getting acquainted with the low-fat, plant-based specialties of the Middle East. House of Hummus is a decent place to start.
The first House of Hummus opened at 1150 Hertel Ave. in 2016. Run by Palestinian Ahmed Hamideh and family members, it delivered a Middle Eastern best-hits menu. Not just the vegan dishes already noted, but meaty choices like kabobs of chicken and seasoned ground beef, plus sliced, spiced and grilled shawarma, in beef and chicken versions.
That menu is replicated in the newer House of Hummus on Elmwood Avenue. The former pizza parlor doubles the seating of the Hertel location. Customers give their orders at the counter and take a seat to wait for their food.
Babaganoush ($6.75) doesn't have a lot of visual charm, but its smooth, smoky character makes up for its beigeness. At House of Hummus, it gets a dollop of salad in the center and a dusting of brick-red sour sumac, to add color and flavor.
Also from the tastes-better-than-it-looks column: lentil soup ($3.99) and foul ($6.49). Lentil soup was a slightly chunky puree of yellow lentils and onions, dusted with parsley and sumac, a hearty bowl of vegan comfort.
Foul, fava beans mashed with cumin, garlic and lemon, was tasty enough to overcome both its unfortunate name and its lumpy grayish-brown countenance. Eat it blindfolded if you have to, because scooped onto pita bread, this can be a lively protein-packed meal that is devoid of animal fats.
Not that I have anything against animal fats. One of the best ways to get them at House of Hummus is with the beef shawarma plate ($12.99). The beef was tender and flavorful, with crusty edges from being griddled. Earthy hummus and Jerusalem salad (diced cucumbers, tomatoes and parsley in lemon, olive oil and tahini), rounded out the plate, which comes with a piece of pita bread. A pool of spicy green salsa on the hummus gave the normally placid spread a welcome kick.
A version with chicken shawarma ($10.99) wasn't quite as satisfying. The chalky chicken approached dried-out territory, even with a squiggle of garlic mayonnaise. On both shawarma plates, I would have expected more meat for the price.
The shish kabob plate ($12.99) was another meaty winner, carrying two grilled torpedoes of spiced ground beef, with more spiked hummus and salad. The beef had taken on a decent crust over the fire without becoming desiccated to jerky.
A hummus supreme platter ($17.99), is almost enough food for a light dinner for two: hummus, babaganoush, beef and chicken shawarma, three salads and three falafel.
I consider dressing up french fries a minor art form, so I had hopes for Jerusalem fries ($8.99), with olives, feta cheese, salad and tahini herb sauce. When I saw the olives were Californian, my hopes fell. When I tasted the oddly muted tahini sauce, they were dashed. The combination's flavor was meek approaching bland, and using the Wonder bread of the olive world didn't help.
The shakshouka ($11.99) made me feel better. It was a skillet of tomatoes redolent of cinnamon and other spices, simmered with garlic and used as a cooking medium for eggs nestled into the mixture. With bread or rice, it would make a respectable meatless meal.
A hummus rice bowl ($10.99 falafel, $11.99 meat) was another satisfying one-dish meal, with hummus, rice, salad and protein.
The falafel ($5.99 for six) were crusty, well-seasoned and tender in texture, some of the best in Buffalo. They started in falafel "cheesesteak" ($9.99), comprised of chopped falafel patties, mayonnaise, onions, lettuce, tomato, green peppers and cheese. It worked together, as solid vegetarian drunk food. Seemed a bit pricey, though, like a few other items on the menu, likely driven by top-dollar Elmwood Avenue restaurant space rent.
Baklava ($2.50) was a fittingly crispy, syrupy way to end a meal, but it would have been better warm.
Especially for vegetarian and vegan offerings, I enjoyed most of the dishes at House of Hummus. What I didn’t like was the room. It could use a coat of paint and some maintenance.
Waiting for food gives you time to wonder why that phone wire dangles down the wall, connected to nothing. A flat-screen television tuned to an Arabic channel adds sound, but it's better as a waiting room for to-go orders than an evening's chosen dining environment.
Get your order to go if you're not in the mood for scruffy surroundings. But don't skip it entirely. Think of your heart, for pita's sake.
House of Hummus – 7 plates (out of 10)
Location: 502 Elmwood Ave. (331-3313)
Hours: 11 a.m. to 10 p.m. Monday through Thursday; 11 a.m. to 11 p.m. Friday and Saturday; and 11 a.m. to 8 p.m. Sunday.
Prices: appetizers, $3.99 to $11.99; wraps and sandwiches, $6.99 to $10.99; plates, $10.99-$17.99.
Wheelchair accessible: yes
Gluten-free options: falafel, rice bowls and plates.