TEXT AND PHOTOS BY CARRIE HAVRANEK
The warmth of Hummus House in Allentown has little to do with the food. After all, we’re talking about cuisine of the Middle East, whose flavor profile includes lemons, olive oil, sumac, parsley and mint—ingredients more inclined to cool you off than warm you up. It’s about the props—their strategically placed, enormous photo lights turn standard deli digs (dropped ceilings, horrible fluorescent bulbs) into a small, ten-seat set with terra cotta walls, photography and plants. And there are those enormous plate glass windows, which allow sunlight to pour in and face the corner of 15th and Chew Streets. There’s the enthusiastic, suggestive selling of son Anthony (or Tony), a 23-year–old with tattoos and a bright smile. He must’ve learned that friendly hospitality from his parents, the owners—Albert and Samar Hechme. The three share the foods of their Syrian heritage, marked by a decidedly hummus-driven twist.
Prior to opening the Hummus House in January 2014, Albert, 53, worked in commercial photography for 18 years in New York. He took most of the photographs that line its walls, with the exception of some vintage family photos. He moved the family out here from Brooklyn in 2004 and started his own audio-visual business, CTA. It was time for a switch. “People in the city walk around with a set face, on a time table, like they’re programmed machines or something. I wanted to wake up in the morning and hear the birds and see green things,” he explains.
So how, and why, Hummus House? Samar, who Albert describes as “47 going on 22,” was always, always in the kitchen and had been doing some catering. “Everything she learned, she learned from her mother, my mother, her grandmother,” he explains. Albert says he was fatigued from a work pace that included regular traveling and wanted to spend more time with his family. “We had a little money set aside, and figured, let’s just do it. Let’s just take a gamble on it. We either win or we lose,” he says.
So far, it tastes like a win. Hummus House has a casual café feel; you can easily become absorbed here without even really trying, between the food options, the free wireless and the ample reading material. The deep windowsills are home to stacks of magazines, resting in a scattershot, casual fashion. It’s not an exaggeration to say there are easily 100 quality titles.
When asked how many subscriptions he manages, Albert laughs; he has no idea. “I had something like 20,000 miles, so I redeemed them in the form of magazine subscriptions. People love it.” It’s like every doctor’s office and hair salon put together. Times ten. Plus hummus.
As you would expect given its moniker, Hummus House is chock-a-block with chickpea-based iterations of this versatile spread. The Hechmes put this little legume to extensive, creative use in a distinctly American way with this dish. There are typically about five varieties: classic, roasted garlic, sundried tomato, roasted red pepper and roasted onion. When I was visiting, the specialty hummus options included an earthy-sweet beet hummus and a thick, chunky guacamole hummus with tomato, onion and a touch of jalapeño. The stuff is so good, it flies out of there; Samar makes it every day, sometimes twice and yes, you can order some to go; just ask.
You won’t need to ask for samples either; they’re forthcoming. “Here. You need to eat this on a chip. It’s better that way,” says Tony, as he passes a loaded chip to me across the counter.
He’s a pusher, in the best way possible, and he laughs at the notion. See, he’s passed the chip after he’s already told me about how many hummus falafel panini he’s managed to sell, convincing me I need to try it, too. Like most things I tasted, it’s ample, light and flavorful.
Those bright, fresh ingredients are sourced close to home as much as possible; it’s another way Hummus House distinguishes itself. Albert says he’s “always gardened,” favors buying locally and organically as much as possible, using ingredients from his home garden (veggies and herbs figure predominantly, when in season) and pita from Soumaya and Sons in Allentown. “They are the only pita bakery in Pennsylvania. Can you believe it?” he says, shaking his head. Other breads come from Egypt Star Bakery, with supplementary produce from the Allentown Farmers’ Market, just down the street. And the spices? They’re sourced from nearby Elias Market. Everything else is proudly made in house, from scratch. “My wife doesn’t make anything she wouldn’t eat herself,” he says, although there’s one caveat. She doesn’t eat meat, but Albert and Tony are quality control for things like kibbee (crushed wheat, onions and seasoned ground beef) and sejok panini, a popular sandwich with pepperoncini pickles and seriously seasoned ground beef. It’s an old family recipe.
Mediterranean fare—Middle Eastern included—is typically among the healthiest. “We have a huge community of vegetarians and vegans that we cater to,” he says. There’s always one soup with meat, and one without. The house-made falafel is baked, not fried and, in the case of the aforementioned panini, pressed between pita along with hummus, olives, cucumbers, tomatoes and olive oil. But Hummus House does Middle Eastern food a little differently around here. Dolmades (stuffed grape leaves), for example, come with rice, chickpeas and roasted red peppers. There is no shawarma; you know, chicken, beef or lamb that roasts all day on a spit and gets shaved off and folded into pita. Albert says shawarma in Damascus is typically made with organic lamb, and it “just melts in your mouth.”
In the U.S., we don’t have the same kind of lamb that they use in Turkey, Israel and Syria, he explains, which can make the shawarma here chewier. “We really wanted the flavors to be family recipes from Damascus and not to commercialize our food,” he explains.
Their iteration of spinach pie involves seven-grain pastry dough stuffed with zesty spinach and onions. And there’s even a somewhat deconstructed version of this: sautéed spinach with garlic, onion and lemon juice, with scattered pomegranate seeds and chopped walnuts and served with pita wedges. Don’t miss their version of mujadara, served with a cabbage salad.
It’s seasoned, shredded red and green cabbage tossed with parsley, lemon, tomatoes, red wine vinegar, and presented in a cabbage leaf alongside expertly cooked lentils topped with toasty-sweet caramelized onions.
Say for some reason you’re not into Middle Eastern food—or you want breakfast. Hummus House serves bacon, egg and cheese on a roll all day, along with options such as bagels with cream cheese, tomato and cucumbers, and pita with labne, olives, mint. “As much as we like and eat homemade food like this,” he gestures to plates of signature dishes occupying the table where we’re sitting, “my son and I just really love sandwiches,” he says. Hummus House offers Boar’s Head products and offers a menu of signature sandwiches, many of them sporting a house-made sub sauce with extra virgin olive oil and secret herbs and spices. Perhaps the most impressive—and they’re all sizable investments of time and appetite—is the Healthy Hero. Imagine turkey, avocado, roasted garlic paste, tomatoes, cucumbers, provolone (or Swiss) cheese, with organic mixed greens and olive oil on a large sub roll. It’s brought together with a bit of mayo along with a roasted garlic paste and a balsamic glaze they reduce in-house.
Casual mom-and-pop food spots that offer well-prepared, homemade fare usually flourish, sometimes so quickly that the pace eclipses the owners’ ability to keep an updated, accurate menu. “We all keep trying different recipes on a daily basis, and give taste samples to our customers,” says Albert. If it sells well as a special, it moves to the menu. But there are some items that are not on the menu at all; ask about muhammara, a super-concentrated roasted red pepper paste with 15 different spices that pulls triple duty as a dip, spread and marinade. Oh, and the Falafel Waffle. And the “Middle Eastern Nachos,” which Tony devised, with sejok beef, fava beans, olives, tomatoes, jalapenos, sharp cheddar and of course, more secret herbs and spices.
At the end of the day, it’s all about the hummus. It’s all over the menu, in many items. Food bridges gaps and hummus appeals to broad swaths of populations, including children, a tricky demographic to feed. Still, public education is often necessary. “Not everyone likes it or knows what it tastes like,” says Albert. One skeptical customer, a committed carnivore, was reluctant to sample. Albert’s always up for a challenge and thrives on one-on-one customer interaction. So he made the customer—get this—bacon hummus—by cooking a few slices up and breaking it up into the hummus for him. He loved it. (I know; it’s bacon. Still!)
See what a universal, shape shifting, tabula rasa hummus is? In the case of the Hechme family, hummus acts like glue. After spending ten months out of the year on the road and “missing half of my son’s life,” Albert says, the breakneck pace of a small food business seems like a blessing. “The Hummus House saved all of that and brought us closer together. It’s amazing what hummus will do,” he says, laughing.
This article appears in the April 2015 issue of Lehigh Valley Style