I’ve always detested hummus. I know, I know: How can I write about food and hate hummus? It’s the culinary equivalent of hating puppies. Everyone loves hummus, book-club staple and virtuous office snack. But I always found it pasty and bland, beige and tasteless, like eating mealy chickpea spackle.
Until I began avoiding gluten. I won’t bore you with my heartburn woes, but suffice to say I’ve swapped too much bread for vegetables and proteins. A healthy choice, perhaps, but also one that leads me to a quiet street in Belmont with hunger pangs and a headache while running errands.
I stumble into Ani on Belmont Street in Belmont, which specializes in Armenian and Middle Eastern food, desperate for lunch. I crave a chicken gyro. But my new diet compels me to order my $6.99 spit-roasted chicken shawarma on a bed of salad instead of in a pita.
The happy guy behind the counter, Ari Janessian, commiserates with me. We talk about wheat for a while. He has a tough time, too. Then he suggests I try a scoop of hummus with my chicken. I acquiesce.
Within short order, I’m sitting in my car, shoving pieces of tender strips of juicy chicken into my mouth like a wild animal. The chicken is rolled in a house-made spice mixture created by owner John Janessian, Ari’s dad: cumin, allspice, nutmeg, cinnamon. This is not your late-night college gyro. The meat doesn’t need any accompaniments, but I have this scoop of hummus, which Janessian makes daily. I dunk my chicken into it, and I’m in love.
This hummus is creamy and airy, with a rich yawn of sesame. I can’t detect chickpea granules on my tongue. I could, however, drink this with a straw.
But wait! A tub of garlic sauce also comes with my meal. This isn’t unusual; many Middle Eastern places offer it as a side, along with tahini. Sometimes it’s good; more often, it’s tasteless and gluey, with only the notion of zing.
This is the most pungent version I’ve ever tasted, pure garlic. You will want to brush your teeth after eating here. The platter also includes fries: greaseless, soft on the inside and crisp within, perfect for sopping up that garlicky spread.
I polish off my entire meal in the car. But I can’t stay away. Days later, I return with my husband and kids. We chat with John, who tells us about his career in sales and food distribution before starting Ani, first as a catering company and later as a restaurant. (There’s a small seating area next to the takeout counter.)
Janessian was born in Syria and raised in Armenia, the child of deportees. Ani is named for his wife, a self-taught home cook. Today, his son Ari, my new pal, works alongside him. Food, such as hummus, is made fresh daily. He offers some Syrian delicacies at the restaurant, such as moushabbak, a deep-fried semolina fritter displayed next to the cash register that my toddler promptly devours. My husband gets his shawarma in a pita wrap, folded tight as a baby in a blanket, structurally sound and easily portable, with more of that garlic spread. He regrets not ordering fries or onion rings (yep, they have rings, too) for extra dunking.
We also visit the takeout case — filled with stuffed grape leaves, cucumber yogurt salad, and baba ghanoush — for a $4.49 plastic container of muhammara, a Middle Eastern red pepper and walnut spread thickened with pomegranate molasses. It’s good enough to eat alone, with a fork, nutty bricks of paprika and hot pepper with little craters of olive oil.
Ani runs a brisk office catering business — they even do weddings — but visiting in person still feels like a secret. It shouldn’t be. Bring cash (they prefer it) and some Altoids.
Ani Catering & Café, 687 Belmont St., Belmont, 617-484-6161, www.anicateringandcafe.com