Hummus and pho. They're just chickpea dip and soup, right? Not even close. The holy quest for perfect hummus is practically a religion of its own in Israel. In Vietnam, pho is a way of life. Now Philly has two new ateliers dedicated to these crafts - both unapologetically casual and refreshingly affordable - where the pursuit of these staples in their highest forms is so single-minded, there's practically nothing else on the menu.
"Is this it?" says my guest, holding-up an index card-sized menu at Stock.
"What are you going to write?" asks Michael Solomonov, Zahav's co-owner, upon learning of my plans to write a review of Dizengoff, his new hummus stand. "Two sentences?"
OK, so here goes: After several memorable meals at Stock and Dizengoff, I'm convinced there's power in focusing on a single specialty and perfecting the exquisite details. One of these is so good, my lunch world will never be the same.
The unbearable lightness of hummus. It's a notion that rarely entered my mind over years of noshing store-bought Sabra and growing up around great Middle Eastern food in suburban Detroit.
And then I walked through a rolled-up garage door on Sansom Street, took a seat at one of Dizengoff's picnic tables, tore off a warm fold of flour-dusted, fresh-baked, fluffy pita, and dove in. The pale puree swirled on the plate before me was so silky and airily whipped, its Levant seasonings so primally tuned, it simultaneously set my hand on auto-scoop and drew me deep into the chickpea vortex. This isn't hummus as most people know it. This is, as Ralph Kramden might say, "hummina hummina hummina" hummus.
No matter which of the daily toppings I chose - whether heirloom zucchinis dressed with tahini, mint, and toasted hazelnuts, or any of three riffs on lamb, each better than the last - these were among the most obsession-worthy $10 meals I've eaten. Plus pickles!
Welcome to the "hummusiya," an Israeli-style quick-serve counter that's basically the best lunch concept Philly never knew it needed. True, standing in long lines and jockeying for one of the 24 seats is a pain in the tuchus. No wonder most do take-out. But this room, clad in a colorful riot of tiles and mirrors, with classic rock on the stereo, hosts a communal dining experience that has energized a rare crosscut of hummus-hungry Philadelphians.
It's no surprise that Michael Solomonov and Steven Cook are behind Dizengoff (named for the popular Tel Aviv street, and attached to their also-new Abe Fisher.) Perfect hummus is the soul of their four-bell Israeli explorations at Zahav.
Set on its own casual stage here, never refrigerated and made in batches until 4 p.m. (or whenever the fresh-baked pitas run out), with a touch of earthy cumin and levitation from a slurry of lemon and (locally imported) Soom tahini, this hummus takes on its magnetic powers thanks to chef Emily Seaman. The Zahav alum compulsively creates new garnishes daily based on what farmers deliver, with spot-on instincts for textures and flavor contrasts.
Summer corn took on the musky sweetness of fenugreek. Red peppers, simmered with pomegranate, went for a muhammara mood with crushed walnuts. Soft cannelinis were tinted yellow with Yemenite hawaj curry, dusted with smoky black flecks of Urfa chilies. Charred eggplants were cooked to a gloss, then tanged with vinegar and garlic. Fragrant ground lamb, one day topped with pickles, another stewed with orange and pistachios, hit a high with aromatic Persian spice.
Wash it down with a draft of Yards. Or even better, an addictive slushie called lemmonana that gave me a minty lemon brain-freeze that only a fresh, hot doughnut, dusted with strawberry-lavender sugar across the street at "CookNSolo's" Federal Donuts, could manage to thaw. How convenient. I'll be back for more, so . . . see ya at the hummusiya.
Co-chef Emily Seaman introduces Dizengoff and chef Tyler Akin introduces Stock at inquirer.com/labanreviews