Oh hummus, we have done you so wrong. The staple of Middle Eastern cuisine, made with humble chickpeas, olive oil and tahini, never deserved to be made into “brownie batter” flavor. But the many, many ways hummus has entered into our everyday lives also has brought us closer to other flavors of countries like Greece, Turkey, Syria, Palestine, Israel, Iraq, Iran and many others.
Once all but impossible to find in Sonoma County — or really even outside large cities or pockets of immigrant communities — spices like saffron, sumac, cinnamon, cumin and turmeric are becoming more common in local fare. Tzatziki sits next to onion dip at Trader Joe’s. Pitas are just as popular filled with peanut butter and jelly as they are with falafel.
With the appearance of several Middle Eastern restaurant newcomers on the local dining scene, it seemed time to honor some of our favorite haunts for hummus and the many other dishes of this vast culinary landscape. And while lumping together the rich cuisines of each region and country under a single banner is as silly as saying American food consists only of hamburgers, hot dogs and apple pie, it all has to start with a common thread that’s universally understood.
So we’ll plant a flag with hummus and go from there, because everyone loves a good hummus. In addition to some best bets, each restaurant will get a hummus score from 1 (not great) to 5 (awesome). And we promise, no brownie batter hummus will be included.
In April, I waited for nearly two hours for a taste of this pop-up restaurant’s “modern Persian cuisine,” almost giving up as the night grew colder and colder. It was so worth it. Kebabs are their signature, and our favorite was the Joojeh kebab, with saffron- and yogurt-marinated chicken with basmati rice and roasted tomatoes. What really brought it home, however, were the sides, like Shirazi salad with cooling cucumber, tomato, pickled red onion and herb dressing; or try the feta with spicy fennel salad and pickled baby almonds. No hummus on the menu. Watch for upcoming pop-ups at eatborobaba.com.
Grill Santa Rosa
Ignore the dull name, because there’s lots to love here. We managed our expectations for this recent addition at the Santa Rosa Plaza (the former Rubio’s), but we were surprised by the well-crafted dishes. Go for the cold mezze plate, a sampling of hummus, baba ganoush (roasted eggplant dip), tabbouleh, tzatziki, dolmas and crisp falafel. It’s plenty big for sharing. Try the lamb gyro as well. Hummus: 4. 1016 Santa Rosa Plaza, Santa Rosa, grillsantarosa.com
This longtime San Rafael favorite just opened in downtown Santa Rosa (in the former Gerard’s Paella location). The falafel is off-the-charts tasty, and we loved the kibbie (ground lamb and bulgur wheat with a gentle cinnamon spice). Things are still getting up to speed, so we won’t be too tough on the pretty good chicken shawarma that could be improved with more seasoning. Hummus: 3. 701 Fourth St., Santa Rosa
This hidden gem is probably the best falafel spot in Sonoma County. It’s exactly the kind of no-frills eatery that focuses on what it does best — falafel. Go for the King falafel where you can choose toppings including pickles, eggplant, tahini, red shatta, tzatziki or tabbouleh. Hummus: 4. 100 Brown St. 150, Sebastopol
You won’t stumble on this out-of-the-way deli unless you spend a lot of time cruising quiet office parks looking for hole-in-the-wall lunch spots. Thankfully, I do, and this charming little place is a Middle Eastern treasure. Their panini-style chicken shawarma wraps are a delicious entry point, with gently spiced meat and melted cheese. It comes with garlic and hot sauces and a Greek salad. Hummus: 4. 613 Martin Ave., Suite 111, Rohnert Park
Here’s another stunner that has stood the test of time. We’re especially fond of the doner wraps — long rolls of lavash bread with sliced meat or kebab snuggled inside. We also love the Pink Sultan, a roasted beet and yogurt dip. Hummus: 5. 307 F St., Petaluma
More than Middle Eastern
Fourth Street Market and Deli
This local sandwich shop makes a mean tabbouleh, and it’s the only spot I’ve found for mujadara, an addictive lentil and caramelized onion dish. Hummus: 4. 300 Mendocino Ave., Santa Rosa, fourthstreetdeli.com
I’ve often given this local charmer short shrift after a couple of long-ago disappointments. Lately, though, I’ve been really impressed with the chicken shawarma and vegetarian mezze plate. Hummus: 4. 557 Summerfield Road, Santa Rosa, and 128 North Main St., Sebastopol
The Swedish cuisine here also includes influences of Turkish street food that’s common in Sweden, but part of the menu sets aside meatballs and lingonberries for kebabs, pita-wrapped falafel, fattoush salad and saffron rice. The eggplant dip is out of this world, and the grilled halloumi pita is equally amazing. Hummus: 5. 220 Western Ave., Petaluma
This chef-run restaurant takes inspiration from the flavors of the Middle East and turns them into memorable meals. Dishes change up, but the picnic plate with tabbouleh, hummus, labneh and fresh pita is required. We also love the Persian meatball tagine with herbed yogurt, lamb burger and shakshuka, a brunchy dish with spiced tomato stew and eggs. Moroccan rice pudding is a perfect, perfumed ending. Hummus: 5. 500 First St., Petaluma
This Jewish-style deli focuses on a wide variety of dishes, from latkes to zhug. We love the nuanced falafel that don’t hit your stomach like a bomb, baby artichokes with labneh and sumac, quinoa tabbouleh and, yes, I’m going to say it again because I eat it so much, the Sabich platter with fried eggplant, falafel, tahina and amba, a sauce made with pickled mangoes. Hummus: 5. 308 Wilson St., Santa Rosa
By Heather Irwin
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