Hummus is hot in North Texas.
The traditional Middle Eastern dip of crushed chickpeas and sesame paste used to be hard to find in Dallas-Fort Worth. But in recent years, Mediterranean food has emerged as a healthful alternative to other ethnic cuisines. Lebanese, Greek and other restaurants are seemingly everywhere, and a growing number of Metroplex chefs are willing to fuse together unusual ingredients that kick hummus into the 21st century.
Even on supermarket shelves, more food manufacturers are offering hummus made with more care, fewer preservatives and better taste.
This is good news for eaters like me, who have traditionally been turned off by the texture and often bland taste of hummus.
The basic elements of hummus include crushed chickpeas (aka garbanzo beans), a sesame seed paste (tahini), olive oil, lemon juice, garlic and salt. Beyond that, the options are many.
One restaurant on Fort Worth's west side has dared to infuse its hummus with caramelized garlic and truffle oil. The concoction is so rich, it's hard to eat more than a couple of bites -- but, ohh, how those bites massage the palate!
"Hummus is one of those things you can eat while having a conversation," said Joe Berry, owner of Winslow's Wine Cafe on Camp Bowie Boulevard, where hummus is a top seller during weekday happy hour. "It's not a full meal, but you can pick at it for an hour and a half. And, it goes well with wine."
A place across the street from the University of Texas at Arlington features hummus with chopped lamb. It's a hit with college students, as well as many Middle Eastern transplants who live in the area.
On Fort Worth's north side, hummus lovers can get their fix while watching belly dancers or puffing on a hookah pipe at Byblos, which has served its no-frills hummus and homemade pita bread pretty much the same way since 1975.
Armed with an empty stomach and tips from friends who like Mediterranean food a lot more than I do, I visited many of the places reputed to have a knack for slathering together good hummus. Here is what I found:
That's a wrap
Spiral Diner, Fort Worth
Hummus and baked sweet potatoes might not seem like a culinary match made in heaven. But leave it to the folks at Spiral Diner to experiment with veggies of similar textures and come up with a flavor combo that works.
The acclaimed all-vegan place (no animal products) sells a very popular Sweet Luv Us Hummus Wrap for $7.50. It starts with a 10-inch tortilla, smeared with layers of homemade hummus and baked sweet potatoes. Sliced cucumber, avocado, greens, delicious spicy walnuts and a tahini dressing made with the same sesame paste used in the hummus complete the complex wrap.
The sweetness of the sweet potato and the citrusy zest of the hummus, which is otherwise mild, give the other ingredients in the wrap a distinctively fresh pop in your mouth.
The hummus at Spiral is made from scratch about twice a week in a large vat, using organic ingredients. Thirty dry cups of chickpeas are boiled, then combined with two gallons of olive oil, a pitcher of tahini paste, about five pints of lemon juice and a blender full of garlic, spices and apple cider vinegar.
The menu also includes hummus as an appetizer dip, and a hot hummus wrap. But the Sweet Luv Us version is the top seller, owner Lindsey Akey said. "I think people are most surprised that the hummus and sweet potato work so well together," she said.
1314 W. Magnolia Ave., 817-332 8834, www.spiraldiner.com
A trio of tastes
Winslow's Wine Cafe, Fort Worth
The air is filled with the aroma of woods, and large windows offer a view of the patio, where even though it's only 6 p.m. on a Friday more than a dozen people have already gathered to sip wine and keep warm next to fire pits.
I grab a seat at the bar, order a locally brewed Rahr's Iron Thistle and ask the two friendly bartenders about their hummus.
The barkeeps, Brad and Mark, recommend a platter with ice cream scoop-size servings of three types of hummus. All three variations are smooth as mashed potatoes and well-chilled. They arrive with a basket of homemade pita chips, which are lightly crispy and a little larger than Fritos Scoops corn chips.
The caramelized garlic truffle hummus is almost a mahogany color, and it's intensely aromatic. The truffle oil flares the nostrils. This hummus looks nothing like the dish Lebanese people have been eating for centuries, but -- whew! -- it's a really good American concoction. I can eat only a few bites, though, because it's super-rich.
The scoop in the middle is roasted red pepper hummus -- and this turns out to be my all-time favorite. The item is so orange it almost looks like a cheese dip, but the nutty taste of the tahini sesame paste quickly serves as a reminder of this dish's Mediterranean roots. The roasted red peppers provide just enough sweetness to give this sampling more palatal balance than other versions of hummus.
The third hummus is flaked with jalapeños and flavored with cilantro and lime juice for a Mexican taste. It's nice, although I'd like it to burn the tongue a bit more.
4101 Camp Bowie Blvd., 817-546-6843, www.winslowswinecafe.com
Greek to me
Terra Mediterranean Grill, Fort Worth
In researching for this article, I learned that hummus's role in Greek food is controversial. Cooks in Greece have prepared similar dishes since ancient times, but hummus by modern definition isn't a native dish.
Nonetheless, Greek restaurants often serve hummus, mainly because that's what customers expect.
I chose Terra Mediterranean Grill in Fort Worth's West Seventh neighborhood to enjoy hummus with my family in a sit-down setting.
First things first: The homemade pita bread in this place is to die for. The bread arrives hot from the oven, and my wife, 15-year-old daughter and 9-year-old son each pick something from the menu with the intent of sharing.
I order a simple bowl of hummus ($6). It arrives in an 8-inch-wide auburn bowl. The consistency and color are not unlike vanilla ice cream, swirled to fit the inner contours of the bowl. As an accent, paprika is dusted atop the hummus in the form of a cross, with each end dotted by three whole chickpeas for decoration.
The chickpeas are ground to utter smoothness and mixed with tahini, garlic and extra-virgin oil. That's it. There is nothing unusual about Terra's version of hummus -- but it is well-executed.
The family enjoys the hummus while also devouring the excellent lamb moussaka ($12), kibbie naya ($14) and roasted chicken ($13).
2973 Crockett St.; 817-744-7485, www.terramedgrill.com
Byblos Lebanese Restaurant and Hookah Lounge, Fort Worth
Step inside Byblos, south of the Stockyards, and you're immediately greeted by a small bar, huge seating area and a stage for belly dancing on weekends.
To the right is a hookah lounge that can hold 30 people. A large provocative mural on the wall is titled Midnight at the Oasis.
Despite all this tremendous atmosphere -- a staple on the Fort Worth restaurant scene since 1975 -- I'm pressed for time and in need of carryout food. I place an order to go at the bar. I pick the hummus appetizer dish, hommus bit-tahini ($6), which amounts to about 12 ounces of dip served in a foam container.
The dip is still icebox-cold when I arrive home, even though the drive has taken a half-hour. The hummus is beige and garnished with a slice of pickle, several medallions of beets and radishes, and coarse-chopped parsley.
It's more textured than at other places I've been, but is still creamy. It's served with six enormous pieces of fluffy, homemade pita bread -- like sopaipillas on steroids! -- which are delightfully oven-charred and speckled with dark grains.
It is a well-balanced offering. The nutty taste of the tahini sesame paste prevails but doesn't dominate the other ingredients, including lemon juice and garlic.
1406 N. Main St.; 817-625-9667, www.byblostx.com
At the market
Central Market, Southlake
Usually, the best hummus is served in restaurants. But sometimes, if you're hosting a party at home, it's just more convenient to get your dip at a grocery store -- especially if a Central Market is nearby.
I visited the store with my daughter, and we chose three types of hummus to take home. We also bought some things to dip in the hummus -- pita chips, pita bread, dolmas (grape leaves wrapped around rice filling), sugar snap peas and Divina Mount Athos olives stuffed with feta cheese.
Our first stop was the salad bar, where Central Market offers a hummus made in-house ($6.99 a pound) that is fused with artichoke hearts and lots of lemon juice. Unlike most restaurant versions of hummus, this one is chunky, almost like oatmeal. I like it, but my wife -- normally a huge fan of artichokes -- disapproves of its texture.
My wife's all-around favorite is Grandma's Humus, a packaged dip sold by an Austin outfit known as The Mediterranean Chef. We pop open the 9-ounce container ($4.69), and it's a fine, ivory-hued hummus with puddles of olive oil stained orange by crushed red pepper and paprika. This is the moistest hummus of all we tried.
Finally, we stumble across a dude offering free samples of Lilly's Kalamata Olive Hummus, made by Oregon Harvest in Portland, Ore.
"You can eat it with pita chips. You can eat it with bread. You can eat it like you eat mashed potatoes," the hawker proclaims enthusiastically.
At $2.99 for 12 ounces, it costs half as much as other brands. Ingredients include organic garbanzo beans, olive oil, kalamata olives, sesame tahini, lemon juice, sea salt, garlic, rosemary and citric acid.
It's a forest green color. The olives are a tremendous pairing with hummus. It's a bit drier than other types of hummus we try, with a water content similar to what you'd expect from a can of Frito Lay bean dip. Nothing wrong with that.
This is my daughter's favorite, because she likes the strong olive taste.
1425 E. Southlake Blvd, Southlake; 817-310-5600, www.centralmarket.com
Sonic no more
Prince Lebanese Grill, Arlington
Prince Lebanese Grill deserves credit for creativity, having successfully converted an old Sonic, where for years people ate burgers while sitting in their cars, into a place where visitors are welcome to come in and sit a spell.
I stepped inside and took a seat near the back, where memorabilia of a famous patron, the Food Network's Guy Fieri, adorn one wall along with several pieces of simple Middle Eastern art.
I ordered a falafel plate ($9) and Diet Coke ($2) to eat in the restaurant, as well as a small order of hummus ($5) to go.
The plate included 12 balls of falafel -- little balls of ground chickpeas or fava beans -- eight olives, sliced pickles and tomatoes, a 2-ounce cup of tahini dipping sauce and a heaping ladleful of hummus. The hummus was swirled onto the plate into a bowl shape, with the middle hollowed out for a drizzling of olive oil, parsley and paprika. The dish was served with triangles of soft but otherwise nondescript pita bread.
The falafel balls are a worthwhile treat for someone new to Lebanese food. The outside resembles a hush puppy, but the inside is soft and grass-green. They look gross but taste great, especially after dunking them in the rather thin tahini sauce that is provided.
The hummus was cool, smooth and ivory-colored. It had a strong taste of garlic and lemon, which gave it a refreshing kick.
502 W. Randol Mill Road; 817-469-1811, www.princelebanesegrill.com
Nutty for hummus
Beirut Rock Cafe, Arlington
The sign out front of this nondescript building, which resembles a revamped Wendy's restaurant, reads Beirut Cafe, -- with the word Rock inexplicably omitted from the name.
But the place is a hit with students from the nearby University of Texas at Arlington and with Middle Eastern immigrants from all over the Arlington area.
The inside of the tiny restaurant is inviting, with lots of reds and yellows in the decor. Some of the dishes are on display at a buffet-style serving table near the cash register; others are prepared out of view.
I arrive, place an order to go and sit at a booth. It's late afternoon, and two other tables are occupied by young people who take turns engaging the friendly server in conversation.
The hummus -- spelled "hommous" on the menu -- can be ordered by itself, or topped with mixed vegetables, lamb or chicken shwarma. I ask for the hummus topped with lamb ($7.49) and 10 minutes later it arrives in a foam container.
The portion is extremely generous -- probably a pound of hummus, swirled around the container, and topped with perhaps a half-pound of ground lamb, parsley and dark-roasted almond chips.
This hummus has an extremely nutty flavor, even without the almonds, which I attribute to the restaurant's use of a potent sesame paste.
Compared to other restaurants, lemon is not as big of a player in this variety of hummus.
1201 S. Cooper St.; 817 860-5498
Gordon Dickson, 817-390-7796