The hummus among us
Oren's Hummus Shop mixes Israeli flavor with Silicon Valley aesthetic
Pity the hummus: ever the bridesmaid, the wingman, the reliable sidekick of Middle Eastern cuisine.
That, at least, is the norm around downtown Palo Alto, where Mediterranean-themed restaurants dish out bursting falafel sandwiches and sizzling shawarma wraps to the salivating masses.
At Oren's Hummus Shop, things are a little different. In this bustling and idiosyncratic place — where a large chandelier hovers next to a colorful chalkboard and where friendly servers sport "Rip Scoop Eat" T-shirts — the comforting chickpea dip finally gets its chance to shine. A novel idea, perhaps, for local foodies, but not so much for Oren Dobronsky, an Israeli-born technology entrepreneur who opened the restaurant on University Avenue last year with the hope of bringing a taste of his homeland to Palo Alto.
After a stint in New York City, Dobronsky moved to Palo Alto about four years ago. His wife, Nancy, operated a Queens restaurant specializing in salads, wraps and panini. Oren Dobronsky said he began thinking about opening a hummus shop almost immediately after he arrived in Palo Alto and found the city's hummus selection lacking. He decided to do something about it.
"In Israel, people treat hummus very seriously," Dobronsky said. "It's kind of like wine in other countries. People have debates about who makes the best hummus, and how it's made."
Things were daunting at first, he said. Though Oren Dobronsky has plenty of experience with startups, the restaurant business presented him with a fresh set of challenges. The startup world has a certain degree of tolerance and flexibility. In the restaurant world, he said, customers can be very unforgiving. The logistical challenges are also far more intense in the food business, he said.
"You need at least 30 people for different shifts starting in the same week and knowing the food that they may not have been familiar with," he said.
Oren's Hummus Shop proudly touts its Israeli connection. The giant chalkboard that lines the restaurant's western wall proclaims, "Finally an authentic Israeli restaurant in the Silicon Valley." The shop imports many of its ingredients, including tahini, garbanzo beans and coffee, from Israel.
"We really wanted to keep it authentic," Nancy Dobronsky said. "We ship our ingredients from Israel directly just to get that authenticity."
Among the most important imports was the hummus-making technique. Nancy Dobronsky said she and her husband did plenty of homework in Oren's motherland before they launched their venture in Silicon Valley.
"We went to every single hummus place that there is in Israel," she said. "I ate a lot of hummus. Each place does it its own way. For each person you ask, they have their own styles."
The idea, initially, was to focus mainly on hummus. But before long, they decided to broaden the menu to appeal to the mainstream diner. The restaurant now offers all the staples of Israeli food — falafels, kebabs, baba ganoush — and its chicken skewers, which come with two sides, are among its most popular dishes, Nancy Dobronsky said.
But in the end, it's the hummus that steals the show. The creamy spread arrives in a bowl along with a stack of warm pita bread, which is baked fresh on the premises. While a purist can stick to just the hummus, those looking for a mix of textures can choose a fancier plate like the "Hummus Triangle," where the hummus sets the stage for slow-cooked fava beans and garbanzo beans. The two bean types almost press against each other in the middle of the hummus plate, separated by only a dollop of tahini. The hummus rises around the bean platter like pizza crust, encircled by a thin rim of olive oil.
The taste may be Israeli, but the aesthetic inside Oren's Hummus Shop is all Palo Alto. The chalkboard lists nutritional information about hummus (100 grams of the stuff, for instance, contains 175 calories) and catalogs the beneficial chemicals contained within (if you're looking to load up on tyrosine, tryptophan or phenyalanine, look no farther). And lest you're still unsure about what region you're in, a notice on the big board includes a wireless password and the modest acknowledgment "We are currently in Beta."
Oren's Hummus Shop
261 University Ave., Palo Alto
Hours: Daily 11 a.m.-11 p.m.