One of the savviest ways to compete in New York’s dog-eat-dog food world, the Underground Gourmet has always said, is to specialize. Find an untapped niche in the local food chain—Japanese cream puffs, say—or just focus all your efforts on making a great bowl of soup, and your chances of becoming the next Beard Papa or Soup Nazi are very good indeed. Spare no expense in making the best Key-lime pie in town or the tastiest shiso-glazed organic doughnut, then sit back and watch a hungry mob beat a path to your door (or, increasingly, your Website).
Still, the road to single-item success can be a rocky one. No one can really predict what will work and what will flop. The competition in certain categories, like cupcakes and hot dogs, is fierce. If, on the other hand, you’re the lone visionary to have ascertained that what the local culinary landscape lacks is a nice popover shop or a stylish rice-pudding emporium, you basically have the field all to yourself—along with the privilege of discovering that your personal obsession with rice pudding or popovers might not be a passion universally shared.
Yet one must follow one’s bliss. Recently, two gastro-specialists did just that, and it led them coincidentally to the same stretch of St. Marks Place, with the Underground Gourmet in hot pursuit.
The unambiguously named Hummus Place isn’t exactly on a secret mission, and on paper, a place selling hummus and only hummus—although it’s probably less risky than baba ghannouj—doesn’t sound like a lucrative proposition. It did, however, to co-owner Ori Apple, a French Culinary Institute grad and former Lespinasse line cook. Factoring in all the hummus-loving expats of all the Mediterranean nations that pride themselves on the stuff—not to mention the East Village’s legion of vegetarians and connoisseurs of Middle Eastern food in general—Apple and his partners figured they had a built-in constituency. Indeed, no one has taken the chickpea spread as seriously—or single-mindedly—as this 28-seat shrine to the dense, creamy, tahini-enriched dip that’s all too often relegated to combo-plate status in falafel-and-kebab joints.
“The road to single-item success can be a rocky one. No one can really predict what will work and what will flop.”
Here, in a whitewashed alcove decorated with a few ornamental mirrors and pottery, there is no swirling meat on a stick and no deep-fryer—only two stockpots on a stove, a fridge equipped with Israeli juices and malt beer, and a food-processor contraption that works Middle Eastern alchemy by turning chickpeas into hummus, twenty portions at a time. A proprietary brand of imported white tahini is the not-so-secret ingredient, giving the spread its pale-beige color and ineluctably rich flavor (the hummus operandi tending toward the smooth and nutty versus the coarse and lemony). Purists can order it relatively unadorned, with just a swirl of good extra-virgin olive oil and a dusting of cumin, paprika, and parsley ($4.50), or up the bean quotient with two variations on the theme: one topped with warm, soft whole chickpeas (masbacha; $4.50), the other with earthy, slow-cooked favas and a sliced hardboiled egg (called foul, pronounced “fool”; $4.95).
That’s all there is, but it’s plenty. Portions are deceptively filling, bona fide meals in fact, served with extra-puffy pitas warmed in a beat-up Black & Decker toaster oven, and a small dish of pickles, hot peppers, and cracked olives. Wherever you find Israeli hummus, you will find mint lemonade; here, it’s subtly flavored with rose water, sold by the glass as well as the carafe, and as refreshing as a restaurant that’s content to do one thing only, painstakingly well.
Across the street, Dumpling Man takes an equally meticulous approach. Owner Lucas Lin isn’t the first entrepreneur to specialize in steamed and fried North Asian dumplings, but after a Chinatown apprenticeship and a year of intense wrapper research, he’s given the bargain-basement genre a sleek, graphically designed makeover and a cute Pac-Man-esque logo that’s already made its way onto merchandise like T-shirts and buttons.
The design of the shop is half its appeal: If you dine in, you sit at a counter separated by a glass panel from a dumpling assembly line, where intensely focused women solemnly slice dough from long logs; roll it out so the edges are thinner than the centers (to achieve uniform thickness when sealed); stuff it with seasoned pork, chicken, tofu and vegetables, or calamari and corn; and carefully crimp the edges before they’re steamed in bamboo or quickly seared in a shallow layer of oil. Lin supervises the entire procedure, which hasn’t quite been perfected—at times, only the steamed are available, and orders aren’t filled as instantaneously as they are in Chinatown, where premade dumplings are always at the ready.
High style and techniques like coloring the dough wrappers with fresh vegetable juices come at a premium: Dumpling Man’s seared pork dumplings, as penny-pinchers will no doubt gripe, are nearly three times more expensive than the Chinatown competition. But they’re fresh and plump, the dough surprisingly light and flavorful with a pleasing al dente quality, the steamed nearly as good as the fried—an anomaly in most dumpling circles. The traditional rice-vinegar-sesame-soy and hot-chili sauces are preferable to Lin’s Marco Polo sauce, a tomato-basil affair best left to his Italian neighbors. But the shaved-ice dessert, laboriously hand-cranked on a vintage machine and drizzled with sweet beans or slow-cooked peanuts and condensed milk, is a perfectly refreshing finale—and not a bad idea for a single-item shop of its own.