The willingness to wait 30-plus minutes for a table and the vibrant community atmosphere once seated are testimony to the fact that people love Oren’s Hummus Shop in Palo Alto.
And now the nonkosher establishment is expanding. A second shop is slated to open in Mountain View, with a target date of June 15.
“You never know what’s going to happen when you open a restaurant. There are so many intangibles,” said David Cohen, executive chef and partner. “But I think we’ve really hit on something. I think we’re at the forefront of a major new dining trend: healthy food that’s sort of fast and casually friendly.”
The Palo Alto restaurant — which has featured hummus bowls and Israeli cuisine since June 2011 — smoothed out some early bumps to emerge as the go-to spot for Middle Eastern food on University Avenue, which is busy with Mediterranean joints. The wait to get one of the 57 seats on a warm Friday or Saturday night is often 45 minutes or more, and there are long waiting lists at other times.
While the Palo Alto spot offers full table service, at the new location customers will order at the counter and a server will bring the food to the table. An undetermined location No. 3, which Cohen says will open nearby by the end of the year, will follow the Chipotle model, with your order constructed by an assembly line in front of you. “That is the direction customers are wanting to go,” Cohen said.
Oren’s is co-owned by its founder, Oren Dobrosky, a Tel Aviv–reared Israeli now living in Silicon Valley, where he specializes in launching startups. His partners are his wife, Nancy, and, for the past 14 months or so, Cohen and his wife, Mistie, who are veteran restaurant consultants.
Oren’s décor is sleek and homey at the same time. One side of the narrow restaurant has three humongous posters of a child demonstrating how to eat hummus: “Rip, Scoop and Eat.” On the other side, a large coffeehouse-style, hand-painted menu board displays “five guiding principles of our cuisine,” including: “Many of our ingredients are imported from Israel” to create tastes “that will transport you to a genuine hummus restaurant in Tel Aviv.”
The restaurant already imports more than 60,000 pounds of chickpeas from Israel every year, along with tahini, pickles, olives, oils and spices. And with more locations coming? “Our secret goal is to become the largest chickpea and tahini importers in the U.S.,” Cohen said.
Hummus is the star of the show at Oren’s, and based on the abundance of Israelis dining there, it just might be the Bay Area’s best. It’s ordered as a main course in a bowl, topped one of six different ways, each served with a basket of delicious homemade pita (again, perhaps the Bay Area’s best). Or as an ingredient in one of six sandwiches, such as chicken, beef kebab or falafel.
There are other main courses, such as skewers, shakshouka and schnitzel, and an array of side dishes, including marinated beets, baba ghanoush and a labane (thick yogurt cheese) that really will transport you back to the Holy Land.
A sense of community envelops Oren’s, as well. It’s usually teeming with Israelis and Jewish diners, although it’s certainly popular with all stripes, serving an average of 400 people on weekdays and around 575 on weekend days. Last month, a sign out front let customers know the restaurant would be closed the first night and day of Passover; it also closes for Yom Kippur.
“The restaurant brings in a lot of Israelis, but it brings in a lot of everybody,” Cohen said. “It’s a tribute to Palo Alto and the Bay Area in general, that it’s so multicultural. But we do provide an authentic Israeli hummus, and Israelis know it’s as good as they can get back home.”
The Mountain View location is at 126 Castro St., in the old Workshop Burger location (mere steps from the shuttered, kosher Kitchen Table). Cohen said it will be similar to the Grove restaurants in San Francisco, with a comfortable décor and food getting to the table six to eight minutes after it’s ordered at the counter.
With 65 seats inside and 30 outside, it will be larger than the Palo Alto location, but the menu will be a bit smaller, with mainly hummus bowls, skewers, sandwiches and a few sides. The owners were hoping for a May 1 opening, but due to permits, inspections and other red tape, June 15 is now the hoped-for opening day.
Oren’s Hummus Shop
261 University Ave., Palo Alto
11 a.m. to 11 p.m. daily
Meet the meats
Chicken shwarma, beef shish kebab and chicken schnitzel are on the menu at the formerly kosher vegetarian restaurant Amba in Oakland. Now it’s called Amba Grill, and there’s a mashgiach (kosher supervisor) on hand whenever the restaurant is open.
Amba made the switch to glatt kosher after Passover, and I stopped by a few days ago to try the new offerings. I clearly haven’t been the only curious customer, as traffic and weekly revenue have doubled since the changeover to meat, chef Jacky Malul said.
My favorite was the kebab — high-quality, tender chunks of beef that were nicely charred, smoky and succulent. For the shwarma, the chicken is carved off a vertical rotisserie and packed into a spongy pita with pickles, sauce, tahini and a kiss of hummus. The pitas are new, imported from Israel; they are thick and sturdy enough to keep everything together. The schnitzel? Like Israelis do, I’d order that heavily fried dish for the kids, or the chicken hot dog that was on the menu the day I was there.
A couple of notes: 1) The prices might seem a bit high, at $14 for a shwarma sandwich alone and $18 for shish kebab with fries and Israeli salad. But running a glatt kosher restaurant with the highest grades of meat isn’t cheap, and most customers realize that, Malul said. 2) Although customers still order at the counter, the service is no longer fast-casual, and meat orders can take 15 to 20 minutes. Since that’s how long diners often wait at a place with full table service, Malul said Amba is considering shifting over to that system.
All of the old Israeli favorites — minus anything that was made with dairy, of course — are still on the menu.
6464 Moraga Ave., Oakland
11:30 a.m.-8:30 p.m. Sunday-Thursday,
11:30 a.m.-3 p.m. Friday, closed Saturday
San Francisco’s Marla Bakery, which started as a pop-up and grew into a walk-up window in the Mission District, is opening a full-service restaurant on May 31 at 3619 Balboa St., across from the Balboa Theatre in the Outer Richmond.
It won’t be a Jewish restaurant, but one of the owners is Joe Wolf, former head pickler at Wise Sons Deli, and Marla Bakery customers have been able to enjoy items such as bagels, cured fish, rugelach, sufganiyot, macaroons, homemade matzah, chocolate-covered matzah and a variety of pickles. Many of these and other items will be available at the new location, especially around Passover, Rosh Hashanah and Hanukkah.
3619 Balboa St., S.F.
Following a delay, the new café at the Osher Marin JCC in San Rafael is opening for business on Friday, May 23. The Plaza J Café is a grab-and-go operation primarily stocked with pre-made deli sandwiches, salads and baked goods from nearby Miller’s East Coast Deli. I’m told they even have matzah ball soup … The popular Jewish Food Festival held in Santa Rosa the past two summers is no longer an annual event. The committee at Congregation Shomrei Torah has decided to hold the ample event every other year, with the next one scheduled for August 2015 … Meanwhile, the huge Jewish Food Festival that people in the Carmel-Monterey area look forward to every year is slated for Aug. 24. The 27th annual extravaganza at Congregation Beth Israel in Carmel Valley will run from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. (www.carmelbethisrael.org) … Don’t forget about the new farmers market at the Oshman Family JCC in Palo Alto every Friday from 1 to 6 p.m. There are about 20 vendors and produce stands, plus a food truck from 11 a.m. to 2 p.m.; to see which one, visit www.tinyurl.com/wcfm-ofjcc … A free program titled “Jews, Food and Family in 20th-Century San Francisco” is slated for 7 p.m. June 19 at the Jewish LearningWorks’ Jewish Community Library in San Francisco (www.tinyurl.com/jff-peters). Erica Peters, author of “San Francisco: A Food Biography” (2013), will talk about the city’s Jewish food history, from places like Waxman’s and Langendorf’s bakeries to Shenson’s Kosher Meat Market and Goldenrath’s Deli … Six months after opening its first place in Danville, Gotta Eatta Pita has opened a second location at 35 Crescent Drive in Pleasant Hill. Modeled like a Chipotle with Middle Eastern cuisine, Gotta Eatta Pita has all kinds of Israeli influences, from the way it makes its own pitas to Tel Aviv-born owner Yaniv Benaroya. As I wrote in December (www.tinyurl.com/hardly-gotta), I think this place is really going to hit the big time … Community Table, the café at the JCC of San Francisco, is offering homemade blintzes for Shavuot. A six-pack is $15, and orders need to be placed by Thursday, May 29 at the JCCSF front desk or online at www.jccsf.org/catering … In its “Best of 2014” issue, SF Weekly gave an award for “best new taste of the Old World” to 20th Century Café in San Francisco, specifically raving about its knishes (198 Gough St., www.20thcenturycafe.com) … Three years ago, I wrote a column about Sam’s Kosher Style Deli in a Sacramento suburb (www.tinyurl.com/sams-deli). It wasn’t the greatest, but I was sad to hear that the establishment recently closed, only three years shy of its 50th anniversary. The Sacramento Bee reported that the area is now left with only one Jewish deli, Bubbie’s Love Kosher Style Deli, which I haven’t tried. Yet.