Hummus is, in my opinion, the foundation of Lebanese cooking. If the hummus isn't any good, don't bother trying anything else unless you're a masochist.
Rusty Fallen knows her hummus. It's silky smooth and bursting with a crackle of garlic and lemon, with just the right balance of nutty tahini. Fancier versions of hummus at Aziza's on Main are in the deli case, but the old-school, traditional hummus is my one and only. And it's perfect.
Aziza's and the McGuire Park Pharmacy next door are a Fallen family collaboration. Fallen's son, Billy, better known as the artisanal baker who came up with Billy Bread, wanted to open a restaurant in honor of his grandmother, Aziza, who cooked Lebanese-inflected dishes for 14 years at her Shockoe Bottom restaurant, the Henrico Inn. Through an open doorway leading from the restaurant, his uncle runs an adjacent pharmacy with a surprising wine selection that puts most corner markets to shame.
Inside the restaurant proper, past the deli case and to the right, you'll find a long narrow room with a bar at the end. A new tin ceiling shines down at you, muted a little by the exposed brick and dark, ostrich-textured tables. A big chalkboard lists all of your choices, although fortunately, a real menu is provided for people who might have left their glasses in the car.
Just as hummus is the foundation of Lebanese cooking, bread is the foundation of the sandwich. Billy Bread is more of a rip-and-chew kind of bread and really is meant to stand on its own, with a little help from some butter or a quick dip in olive oil. Instead, Aziza's uses the Flour Garden's outstanding bread, and it's sliced thinly and crisped gently in a panini maker. Vegetarian sandwiches pile the roasted vegetables high, and with the addition of a little cheese for nonvegans, it becomes a drippy, crunchy delight. Ham is shaved extra-thin for the ham and cheese sandwich and cradled in an unfurled leaf of lettuce.
Sandwiches come with a green salad and black olives, although the garlicky potato salad or minty chickpeas can be substituted for a nominal fee. The meat pies are a little dry, and I wonder if the filling for the koosa is the same as the filling for the grape leaves; but these are minor criticisms. I liked the juicy vegetarian grape leaf rolls, full of chickpeas, tomatoes and lemon, better than the meat version, but both were good.
Order either the meat or nonmeat versions of koosa — a cinnamony rice filling full of mint and topped with tomatoes stuffed into the thin shell of a summer squash and gently roasted. Add a side of pink liffuts — spicy pickled turnips and beets — as well as bread, and you have lunch for a cold, grey day.
While quiche may not be Lebanese, Aziza's still knows how to turn out a fine version. A whole quarter of a pie comes hot and light, instead of as a slab-like wedge, and although two other quiche choices are good, the pancetta and fontina is a much better way to go. With its homemade crust and calculated ratio of cheese to egg, it's an earthier rendition of the same old boring quiche Lorraine.
I'm not going to even tell you about the cream puffs. Just go eat one. And bring me back one, too.
Best of all is that you can take everything with you for your own Lebanese feast at home. Just point at what you want in the deli case, and it's all wrapped and labeled for you to take away. If you ask for hummus, they thoughtfully include plenty of the nearly paper thin, Flour Garden pita instead of the ordinary kind you see everywhere else.
I wish Aziza's served dinner so I could try its versions of kebabs or kibbeh or shawarma. Maybe soon. We have a couple of contenders for best Lebanese food in Richmond but things happen lightning fast on the Richmond restaurant scene. Sandwiches and hummus will have to sustain me until Aziza's decides to enter the race. S
Aziza's on Main $
2110 E. Main St.
Monday-Friday: 11 a.m.-6 p.m.
Saturday and Sunday: 11 a.m.-2:30 p.m.