Sizzle & Savor
Serial restaurateur Imran Yousif shares his favorite tastes of the Mediterranean, blending ancient favorites with contemporary appeal.
By April Bartel and photos by Turner Photography Studio
The Hummus Mediterranean Grill on John F. Kennedy Drive may be just three years old, but it lands on the Hagerstown Magazine Hot List each year for a reason. Fans love the food. Known for its flavorful vegan and vegetarian fare, their most popular offering, the chicken shawarma, is a recipe that goes back to the Ottoman Empire. So, folks have been indulging in this succulent dish for a while. It is owner Imran Yousif’s personal favorite, along with their creamy hummus, and the inspiration behind the restaurant he eventually hopes to franchise.
No stranger to the restaurant business, Yousif says, “I came to America in 1996 while I was still in school and got my first job as a dishwasher in New York.” He moved around a bit, delivering pizzas and learning to make them. That early experience revealed a career path for the young foodie, one that now includes a balanced background in hands-on food prep and business management. At one point, Yousif owned five pizza shops, spread from Lorton, Springfield, and Fairfax in Virginia to Silver Spring and Point of Rocks in Maryland. Now Hagerstown is home.
Yousif explains, “Shawarma is a very common street food in the Middle East. It is not my background, but every time I travel, I would love to eat it. I love food. I love to cook, so I always dreamt of having this kind of a concept in the states.” As a husband and father, he wanted more time with his family, too, so he pared back his pizza empire and took a chance on realizing his enduring dream. He flashes a pearly grin, “I wasn’t sure how it would go. As a backup, I thought, we could make pizza if it doesn’t work out.”
No need. Guests embraced the new place for its unique flavors, plentiful healthy options, and sunny atmosphere. We visited at an “off” hour in late afternoon to catch up with Yousif, but patrons consistently sail through the door. A number were obvious regulars, greeted by staff members with friendly smiles and a knowing question, “Falafel today?”
Following a group at the register, a pair of women enter, chatting. One is a return customer who coaches her companion through the ordering process. They lean in to peruse metal serving containers loaded with colorful fresh and pickled veggies, sauces and proteins. There’s ezme, a hand-chopped “salsa” with tomatoes, onions, peppers, and mint; tzatziki, a refreshing condiment with yogurt and cucumber; and piquant s’hug sauce, a rough mix of hot peppers, garlic, coriander, cumin, cardamom, and salt. Those stand with familiar options like roasted corn, olives, lettuce and chickpeas. As one friend waffles over a few of the exotic mixtures, the other prompts, “Get it. It’s good.”
Minutes later, a customer dashes in for her pick-up order, “A family favorite,” as the party behind us shares plates among the table so every member gets to taste a variety.
Barbara and Matthew Protos are repeat customers, along with Seth Merriman. The trio happily admit to dining at Hummus Mediterranean Grill several times a week and laugh about enjoying the leftovers between visits.
Mr. Protos says they discovered the place about a year ago. “My father was president of the National Restaurant Association for 12 years. So, I grew up being taken to different restaurants from fancy to not fancy and every kind of restaurant. This is very special.”
“Solid,” is how Ms. Protos describes the place, recommending the French fries with a Middle Eastern twist. The crispy planks are slightly salty with an unexpected dusting of za’atar, a traditional spice blend with tangy sumac, oregano and marjoram.
Merriman nods readily, saying. “I love it. It’s something unique and the food is incredible. And I’m always full when I leave.”
The restaurant participates with delivery services, too. It is featured on Happy Cow, an online listing of vegetarian and veg-friendly restaurants.
Yousif’s eyes alight as he waves to familiar diners. He says it’s satisfying to see people enjoying the food. “It took me almost a year to come up with all the recipes. I traveled a lot for research, to figure out exactly how things should be. Then I put my own twist on it. We created this with a more modern flavor.”
His favorite is also the number one seller, the chicken shawarma rice bowl. He likes it loaded with their savory long-grain basmati rice and deeply colored mixed greens as a base, then topped with slices of chicken marinated in golden spices and roasted until juicy. He piles on scoops of crumbly feta cheese, parslied tabbouleh salad, cucumber, tomato, and pickled red cabbage. The petitely-diced pickled turnips are bright magenta against a drizzle of white garlic sauce. A sprinkle of burgundy-hued sumac finishes with a citrusy tang. And it still makes his mouth water.
“To be honest,” he says, “it’s amazing. I’ve been here for more than three years. I eat this dish 3 to 4 times a week and I still crave it.”
That’s saying something, considering that the Hummus Mediterranean Grill goes through some 700 pounds of chicken each week. Deboned chicken is marinated in a house-made seasoning mix for 24 hours before being loaded onto a three-food skewer, forming a 40-pound cone-shaped stack that is crowned with an onion and a lemon. The vertical commercial roaster turns the spit slowly as staff bastes the meat in its own juices, which glisten and sizzle as it rotates past the heat source. The stack is shaved into thin slabs as it cooks, allowing each layer of the humongous roast to get the same savory treatment from the first slice to the last.
Cooking starts about 930 a.m. so it is ready for lunchtime at 11 a.m. The second spit goes on around 1 p.m. and a third starts in time for dinner. They’ll serve about 200 pounds each of 100% pure boneless leg of lamb and savory-spiced Gyro slices as well
“Every single thing here is made from scratch, including all of our pickled vegetables, salads, hummus, and sauces,” insists Yousif. Customers often buy the sauces to take home, especially the spicy or mild garlic versions. The harissa and s’hug (jalapeno and cilantro) versions round out the top four. They come in 16-ounce squeeze bottles.
Guests can choose from crispy bites of falafel that start as coarsely mashed chickpeas with green herbs or pita wraps loaded with fillings then seared on griddle. The signature hummus is silky, served with a splash of golden olive oil. There’s roasted baba ganoush with pita or fried pickles and plenty of vegan/vegetarian and gluten free options, even riced cauliflower.
If you fill up on the main dish, take some dessert home for later. Yousif’s wife, Sadia, makes them all from scratch, too. There’s usually honeyed baklava and classic chocolate cake, but you may find refined gems like her layered pistachio cake, Oreo cheesecake, and mango roll-up cake. The latter is dramatic and lusciously creamy. Removing the plastic shield releases a richly seductive cascade of mango custard over a mini round of cake and whipped cream. The secret recipe Lotus cake is the best seller. That’s a delicate sponge cake flavored with European Biscoff cookies.
As Yousif hustles through the restaurant, filling orders and cleaning tables, it’s clear he is in his element and looking forward to the next step. He’s had people ask about franchise opportunities, so he’s working on legal and training documents now. He also has a vision for a second location in Martinsburg, WV.
“This is my dream.”