Mr. Hummus Grill matures from food trucks to finer digs.
If you’re not familiar with Mr. Hummus Grill’s origins as a food truck, owner Tarek Albast’s Lebanese spot on Bethel Road may come across as confusing at first. The ornate wooden paneling and impressive bar (serving tea and coffee, not booze) seems out of sync with the servers’ T-shirts that offer catch phrases combining food puns and politics—“make falafel great again” and “spread hummus not hate.”
Impressive leather-bound menus and artfully constructed platters contrast with a diner-style bell (“Order’s up!”) announcing the food. And sandwiches wrapped in red checkered paper contrast with $20 entrées served with style.
With these quirks, Mr. Hummus feels like a food truck that is growing up to be a restaurant. Once guests are settled into cozy booths, they are transported from a Columbus strip mall to Beirut for authentic Lebanese cuisine and simple, yet earnest, hospitality.
There’s nothing that says “welcome” like the wide variety of teas offered at Mr. Hummus. The superfood of the hot beverage world, the cardamom tea ($3.95) is served with plenty of hot water refills from an attentive staff. Sodas, Turkish coffee, smoothies and fresh-squeezed juices round out the beverage selection.
There’s consistency to the menu at Mr. Hummus. A giant pile of yellow rice, thin slices of pale tomatoes, red onion half moons, steamed vegetables, some sort of sauce (usually tahini or tzatziki) to accompany the proteins and a red spice blend adorn every dish. Because the majority of these Lebanese-style meats are lean—or dry—in nature, those sauces come in handy. Garlic, olive oil and parsley have leading roles, providing insight into what is important and in abundance in this Middle Eastern country on the Mediterranean.
A meal can be made of the appetizers, and the two hummus options are an obvious place to start. The regular hummus ($5.95 for a small portion) is served with a pool of olive oil and a basket of spongy pita slices. For an additional $3, you can get cucumbers and carrots for carb-free dipping. Smooth and almost fluffy in nature, the namesake starter is an upgrade from dense, grocery-store hummus.
But it’s the rich fattet hummus ($9.95) that will become a catalyst for my return trips. Only available in a large portion (bring friends), it can be described both as a deconstructed hummus and a Mediterranean version of a seven-layer dip. A base of fried pieces of pita creates a flaky crust to hold the subsequent layers. Thanks to lots of garlic, it resembles Greek skordalia in texture and taste. Warm, boiled chickpeas are a major element of the dish, and the rest of the components of hummus—tahini, olive oil, lemon juice—have their own place in the lineup. The garlic-spiked yogurt, toasted pine nuts and a generous helping of olive oil make it decadent. A sprinkling of ever-present parsley makes it even more healthy.
The fried kibbeh ($6.95) makes no claims of being good for you—but it’s not to miss. Three sizeable pieces of the football-shaped Lebanese croquettes are filled with a finely minced beef and bulgur wheat mixture accented with aromatic spices such as cinnamon and allspice. It’s served with tzatziki.
The loubie bzeit ($5.95) is puzzling. Served cold with pita for dipping, it’s made of Italian (read: flat) green beans (that were either canned or frozen) mixed with tomato purée, olive oil and garlic in a consistency that makes it feel more like a stew than a starter.
Sandwiches are served as wraps and, when accompanied by fresh fries ($1.95), give a nod to Mr. Hummus’ heyday on the food truck scene. The soujouk sandwich ($7.95) will come as a surprise to folks not familiar with the dry, spiced meat that resembles a Middle Eastern Slim Jim. Wrapped in pita, the garlicky tahini that accompanies the sausage, tomatoes and pickles helps moisten the texture. The shish tawook sandwich ($7.95), which swaps the soujouk for tender, charcoal-roasted cubes of marinated chicken, fares slightly better, but the result is still dry.
Most of the main dishes are differentiated by the portion of protein (smaller than standard American-style portions) served beside a mound of rice, steamed squash, zucchini, carrots and green beans. On the kafta kebab platter ($15.95), two skewerless kababs of well-seasoned lamb and beef bring a smoky flavor to the rice, which naturally takes on the characteristics of the meat and the pungent spices that are prevalent in Mr. Hummus’ dishes. The beef shawarma platter ($14.95) is a half plate (a larger portion than most) of beef pieces with a hint of allspice, served with the same sides. Quantity and flavor do not make up for the overcooked meat.
On one evening, a lamb shank special ($19.99) graced the entry’s A-frame sign.
The braised, falling-off-the-bone lamb felt like a relic of the old-fashioned Midwestern Sunday dinner, with its large chunks of carrots and whole peeled white potatoes. Served on a bed of rice and topped with roasted eggplant slices, this special came with its own bowl of savory broth for dipping. It was a definite win.
The most impressive entrée, however, is the fried red snapper ($20.95). A whole fried fish (eyeballs and all) swims upright across the plate and is served with the traditional Mr. Hummus accoutrements. The large flakes of the mildly flavored fish are easy to cut off the bone. Although the dish is simple, the ingredients speak for themselves. Entrées like this one show that Mr. Hummus is ready to graduate to this full-service restaurant.
While the restaurant’s portion sizes rarely leave room for dessert, the Mr. Hummus Special Dessert ($6.95) is worth it. The fiberglass-textured pulled sugar (a Lebanese take on cotton candy known as ghazal al banat) with its frayed edges is a nest for three scoops of ice cream, an orange blossom rosewater syrup and pink edible glitter. It’s unlike anything else found in the city and, like the snapper and the fattet hummus, is a reason to keep coming back.