I went to Aviv Hummus Bar (107 15th Ave. E, 323-7483) expecting a sterile counter, a menu on the board above, and some hummus to go—maybe pretty good hummus, even, but nothing to get too jazzed about.
Instead, on a rainy Saturday afternoon, the colorful Capitol Hill space with counter seating, as well as real tables and chairs and real service, was thrumming with conversations and with staff stirring large bowls of hummus in a particular fashion: swirling swaths of it to the outer edges to make room for toppings in the center. This super-smooth hummus is a perfect blend of dense and creamy, and not in the least bit overly oily. There are five variations: the classic (no toppings); with falafel; with shawarma-spiced ground beef; with mushrooms and sautéed onions; and a made-to-order version, which I’ll get to.
Besides the hummus, there’s fried-to-order falafel served stuffed in a pita or on a plate, though you can also get it as a small or large side. We did the latter, just to try it. The larger size, with seven pieces, comes atop a swirl of pure tahina. The little rounds are comely with a just-right crisp on the outside and a supple filling loaded with herbaceous flavor. Just a dot or two of that nutty, gorgeous, sesame-forward tahina is all it needs. Since my daughter was with us, we also ordered the “cheeps”: golden, slightly thick fries with crunch and bend, copiously dusted with shawarma spice, the Middle Eastern seasoning typically used to flavor chicken cooked on a rotating spit. The spices can vary a bit depending upon who makes it, but most include cumin, turmeric, allspice, cinnamon, paprika, coriander, salt, and black pepper. The server wouldn’t divulge the exact recipe, but suffice to say it made for addictive, finger-licking fries. They too come with tahina for dipping. Another side, the “saladt,” was a simple but urgently fresh combination of chopped tomatoes, cucumbers, bell pepper, red onion, and parsley dressed in lemon and olive oil. It’s a lovely addition to the fried food.
So about that hummus. We tried two different versions. The basar (shawarma-spiced beef) comes minced and adorned with pine nuts. It’s earthy and bold and a harmonious partner to the hummus. But what really rocked our palates was that made-to-order version, the masab cha. In it, the chickpeas are half-mashed and loaded with lemon and garlic. Despite its chunkiness, it manages to be supremely smooth—more like the texture of a creamy dip—and, sopped up with warm, puffy, rounds of pita, it’s impossible to put down. We ordered another to go and had it again for dinner. If you choose to spice up any items, a Yemeni s’chug sauce is available for $1. Red-pepper-based, it gets its acidic tang from the likes of parsley, cilantro, garlic, lemon juice, olive oil, and other spices like cumin. It’s one of my new favorite hot sauces, mainly because it imparts both heat and complexity. Also, to any order, you can add a boiled egg, tahina, or falafel. Alcohol is limited to beer and wine, and there are sodas and ginger beer for kids.
Aviv also gets major points for straddling the line of fast/casual and sit-down restaurant with aplomb. The bright space features white brick walls with hand-painted chickpeas scattered about on it, along with the slogan “Hummus where the heart is.” There are also plants, multicolored stools, and chairs—lime green, purple, turquoise, yellow—and floating shelves that hold colorful glass vials filled with pickled things. Even the table centerpieces are creative: little succulent plants embedded in chickpeas, rather than dirt or sand. The whole effect is cheery and modern, and the large blonde-wood bar top with a corrugated tin base, behind which at least four people were busy prepping, serves as the heart of the space. I loved how families and hipsters were coexisting, everyone seemingly buoyed on a gray day by the lively atmosphere and the fantastic food. Let’s hope they expand beyond Capitol Hill. Based on early evidence, it seems like a missed opportunity if they don’t.