A few minutes after 11 a.m., when Little Sesame opens its doors for lunch downtown, lines snake outside the door, and seating becomes a rare commodity. Every weekday, swaths of workers, families, and tourists visit the shop for fast service, a breezy, West Coast-meets-Negev desert atmosphere, and its most popular item: the humble hummus bowl.
In D.C.’s crowded fast-casual scene, the latest trend riding a plant-heavy “wellness” wave comes in the form of chickpeas, tahini, olive oil, and lemon juice.
Hummus has long been common as an appetizer or a meze item at dozens of Mediterranean and Middle Eastern restaurants in the city. But the garbanzo-based dip has recently been granted entree status at quick-service counters catering to a crowd that’s replacing the power lunch with healthy bowls of vegetables.
Three years ago, Little Sesame first made hummus bowls a hit with its pop-up inside the now-closed DGS Delicatessen. Now the Goop-approved brand has two standalone locations, including a Chinatown branch that opened in March, and new competitors to boot.
Last month, vegan Israeli counter Shouk rolled out its own version of hummus bowls at its two locations, in Mount Vernon Triangle and the Union Market district, to pair with its proprietary veggie burgers and roasted cauliflower pitas. Taïm, a New York-based falafel chain from Israeli chef Einat Admony, opened its first D.C. location in Georgetown in August, bringing on vegetarian platters and pitas that all come with a hearty dollop of hummus.
Little Sesame co-owner Nick Wiseman says he knew the company was onto something when people were waiting waiting in the rain to try hummus bowls during the pop-up’s early days in the basement at DGS. “People were super excited and loving what we were doing,” he says. He’s partnered with his cousin, David Wiseman. An old chef buddy, Ronen Tenne, gives the brand Israeli cred.
At Little Sesame, diners can choose from a variety of six seasonal hummus bowls, with the option to include add-ons such as pickled chiles and feta. The most popular, Nick Wiseman says, is a cauliflower bowl made with herb tahini, everything spice, and green onion. Other bowls integrate Middle Eastern ingredients like za’atar spice, pickled mango amba, and spicy, herby zhug that — thanks in large part to Philadelphia’s Michael Solomonov, who opened Dizengoff hummusiya in 2014 — are showing up more and more at restaurants nationwide.
Repeat customer Lilah Burke appreciates the straightforward way Little Sesame treats its star ingredient.
“Little Sesame is great,” Burke says. “I don’t think hummus is meant to be eaten as the way Cava’s fast casual joints serve it ... with seven different toppings forming a kind of hummus slop.”
Little Sesame’s staff makes hummus in small batches throughout the day to maintain freshness. Unlike the Sabra in the aisle at Safeway, the dip is meant to be eaten immediately. It’s not supposed to last more than one or two days if customers choose to take it home.
“Hummus is one of the fastest growing sectors in groceries, with more than a quarter of people having them in their fridge — but in order to make it well, there’s a technique,” Wiseman says.
Similarly, the owners at Shouk disdain the idea of even being in the same ballpark as grocery store hummus.
“Oh yeah, it doesn’t compare,” says co-owner Ran Nussbacher, a native of Netanya, Israel, who emphasizes the good-for-you aspect of hummus bowls packed with protein-rich chickpeas and plenty of vegetables.
“It’s no question Israeli food in the United States is having a moment,” he says.
At Shouk, which has been in D.C. for three years as well, diners can now pick between four bowls including a “classic” — topped with za’atar, chickpeas, parsley, and olive oil — or a falafel version made with pickled green cabbage and Israeli salad.
Of course, hummus is by no means a new food. According to the BBC, the chickpea dates back 10,000 years to Turkey, and tahini is referenced in 13th-century Arabic cookbooks. It’s seen its share of political tirades — in 2008, the president of the Association of Lebanese Industrialists launched a food copyright lawsuit against Israel, complaining about the commercialization of the dip.
“We’re not going to say that we were first to bring it to D.C.,” Wiseman says. “This food has existed for a long long time before us, and a lot of other people belong to this.”
As for what’s next? At Little Sesame, the restaurant is gearing up for next year’s round of its “Little Seedlings” fellowship, a year program where the company donates funds to help a young farm build its infrastructure. At Shouk, the owners continue to roll out new menu items — mushroom “shawarma” followed the introduction of falafel this year — and consider new markets for expansion.
For both brands, growth will depend on their ability to market and sell pureed chickpeas.
“Our fan base has always been asking for hummus bowls,” Nussbacher says. “We never thought it would be such a main event.”