Hummus is the glue -- sometimes almost literally -- that holds a Middle Eastern/Mediterranean meal together. Do it wrong, and indeed, it's a little like cement. And not in a good way.
But do it well and some of us will fill up on the chickpea dip long before the gyro or the kebabs hit the table.
Wander the aisles at the super-authentic, off-the-beaten-path Baiz Market in Phoenix and you'll see that there's actually an entire aisle devoted to hummus. But today is about the stuff served behind the counter at Al-Hana, Baiz's take-out spot, which we're pitting (heh heh, get it? olive reference) against the hummus at Pita Jungle, the ubiquitous Valley chain that just sprouted a new location on Roosevelt and 3rd Avenue.
What happened when we took the dip?
Walk into Baiz and you immediately forget you're on a dumpy side street in a desolate section of town. Lamb heads in the freezer section, entire animals in the butcher department and a bakery section that will make you feel like you died and went to Iran. There's even a full complement of groceries (even Diet Pepsi) so you can do your shopping.
The take-out counter (which features a dining section -- and don't worry, it's out of eyeshot) offers meat pies, salads, and grilled meats. And hummus.
Our order of hummus was huge and beautiful -- drizzled with olive oil and sprinkled with paprika. It was good, but with a spinach pie waiting, we weren't tempted to lick the plate clean. The flavor was good -- garlicky enough to require two Altoids -- but the consistency was rough and for us, the oil was too much. It was served with two pitas, which were not stale but definitely not fresh.
Ah, the Roosevelt Pita Jungle. Long-anticipated, and we're not disappointed. This location shakes the chain's older spots' hippie charm in favor of sleek metal and spare surfaces. It's smooth and so is the hummus. Perfectly flavored, creamy with the right balance of garlic and lemon. And the pita was super-fresh.
It might not be the most authentic -- but it was the most delicious. And no one anywhere enjoys a stale pita. Pita Jungle takes this week's prize.
Amy is managing editor at Phoenix New Times. She's worked at the paper since 1993 and her work has also appeared in the New York Times and on the radio show This American Life.