I roamed the markets and Arab-owned liquor stores, but nothing satisfied my garbanzo-lust. So I embarked on an exodus. From greasy shawarma joints to swanky Turkish wine bars, I infiltrated kitchens and went behind counters to taste test some of the best hummus the city has to offer. Turns out, there is many a place in San Francisco to worship the chickpea.
Complexity is the sole universal measure of good quality hummus. Global cultures each have their own distinct variations – mild or pungent, salty or savory, with tons of garlic or no garlic at all, the styles are endless. But a great hummus will surprise you with its layers of flavor, the soft crunch of a whole chickpea, or a subtle dash of cumin that wasn’t obvious at first bite. Universally, a good hummus is a challenge to eat slowly.
When I walked into Goood Frikin Chicken and saw the stacks of fresh pita grilled with zatar (a forest green Arab spice the texture of fine sand with tiny seeds), I knew I’d stay for a while. The hummus created a storm cloud in my mouth the way that a good one should, billowing with waves of flavor, each with its own stage. First my tongue recognized a hint of salt, and then the tangy bitter of the tahini, all delivered with an undercurrent of garbanzo. It was light and sunny, and not too filling, dissolving in my mouth with the ease of cotton candy. This only made it more addictive. The entire time I was reduced to mumbling: "Oh my Gd. Oh my Gd. Oh my Gd."
The fresh, homemade hummus at Cheese Boutique comes in a convenient, small Tupperware container, its khaki-color visible through the clear plastic. Its creamy texture drips onto your dipping instrument of choice – I prefer vegetables. It was utterly fantastic, tasting satiny smooth and savory, with a citrus zing, and leaving behind creamy memories of lemon in my mouth. It did not fog up my taste buds or leave my stomach full. It was light, and the perfect complement to every lunch item I could think of.
The edamame hummus at Radio Africa Kitchen throbbed with zesty lemon and had a garlic aftertaste. It was the light meadow green of mint chip ice cream, with a proper hummus texture. I closed my eyes and savored the crisp taste of the edamame, as refreshing as biting into a slice of juicy cucumber. It was both light and satisfying. Starting very soon, this hummus will be available at Radio Africa’s new location in the Bayview and served with sourdough bread.
La Mediterranee was pulsing with color – woven rugs and vibrant craft art adorned the walls. Lights twinkled across the top of the bar like snowflakes caught on eyelashes. The hummus came with vegetables arranged across its surface in a geometric pattern. Slices of beet, carrot, cucumber, and olives were cut diagonally and sprinkled with parsley. The hummus was a creamy beige, served with warm, soft pita. It was light and tasted gentle, like early morning sun. It was not as flavorsome as I would have hoped, but it wasn’t bland by any means. It was slightly salty with a sour sting, with footprints of lemon. As I chewed I listened to the mellow, groovy tunes overhead.
Murals of the city it’s named after covered the walls of Old Jerusalem. Tear-jerking Arabic music filled the air. “I came here and I wanted to make a restaurant exactly like home,” the chef told me. His recipe uses no garlic and he looked offended by the mention of lemon juice. “Lemon salt,” he clarified. “The process is very important, that it’s timed, how long to soak, how long to grind, like a dance done to music.” The hummus was covered with lakes of olive oil, scattered clusters of paprika, and finely chopped parsley. It was slippery, disappearing down my throat quickly, but very filling when served with warm pita, and thicker than the summer humidity of Tel Aviv’s beaches. In it I could taste smoke from the wild fire roasting shawarma in the kitchen. I savored the chaos of Jerusalem behind my teeth, a noisy flavor, a buzz between my ears. It was velvety, almost sublime.
Haig's came highly recommended by a Greek-American foodie I trust. I ordered the spicy hummus to go despite my pansy palate. It was the color of Skippy peanut butter, and the ingredients included frightening words like “no added oil,” “cayenne,” and “water.” But it proved to be rich and only mildly spicy. It delivered a kick to the tongue after swallowing, but (thankfully) no burning or sweating followed. This hummus was not heavy enough or complex enough to stand alone for my taste buds, but it would make the perfect complement to a sandwich or falafel.
Modern art covered the bright blue walls at Bursa. The restaurant was packed. The hummus came with a few whole chickpeas still meandering in a pool of olive oil on the surface – a promising sign. It was served alongside soft, grilled pita. The hummus itself was saucy and salty, a savory appetizer that proved decent, but it needed even more olive oil in order to capture that authentic taste I craved. This hummus was like a cruel lover – I couldn’t explain why, but I always wanted more. I licked the plate clean.
For a tongue in exile, the hummus offerings at Old Jerusalem, Cheese Boutique, and Good Frikin Chicken more than get the job done.