Stand by your standbys, go to your go-tos… unless they’re gone.
A’Float Sushi on Colorado Boulevard just east of Raymond Avenue was often our default option for a quick snack or an impulsive supper in lieu of rounding up a meal at home. We called the place “The Sushi Boats” or just “The Boats.”
The long oval counter harbored a narrow canal where plattered “boats” floated past, offering a variety of nigiri, sashimi and maki roll options, each item priced according to the colored pattern of its serving tray. I had learned to find a chair just downstream of the chef’s notch so as to have a first pick of the freshest cargo.
Beyond the nautical charm, the appeal of walking in, finding a seat at the counter and immediately snagging items from the boats afforded a singularly satisfying experience that could only be had at “The Boats.” No more. And likely never again. A’Float Sushi was among the very first wave of restaurant closures in town that includes Dupar’s, Soup Plantation, Café Verdi and Sushi Ichi. Unfortunately, the list is now longer and will continue to grow.
But then there is the curious case of Hummus Labs.
“It was too easy to [just] open a restaurant, when 70 percent fail in the first year. I decided to do it in the middle of a pandemic…” says Joseph Badaro, 34, who exudes a remarkably sunny confidence given the fact that indeed, he opened Hummus Labs — his first restaurant — on April 1 , a mere two weeks following the lockdown order. How and why?
“I spotted the place around Oct. 20. I was having brunch with my wife at Europane randomly, saw the ‘For Lease’ sign [and] called immediately because I had wanted to be in Pasadena for quite some time… Signed the lease Nov. 1.”
The landlord gave him a three-month rent waiver for improvements and he hired a contractor, who initially promised to finish the renovations in two weeks, which then slowly became two and a half months. Permitting with the city advanced at its usual mysterious pace, although not without some prodding from Badaro. After resubmitting his mildly corrected plan to the city Health Department, completing finishing touches with his sluggish snail-paced contractor, and a final health inspection walk-through it was March 20, a full week following the initial lockdown order. He then brought in a crew of six and spent a full day scouring the space from top to bottom.
Despite popular associations with the first day of April, Badaro chose April 1 to open because it was also the date he started his successful catering business — Badaro Cuisine — in 2013, after a stint as an executive at a boutique accounting firm.
Not faced with a hard pivot to take-out and conceived as a “fast-casual” operation, Badaro didn’t even bother with buying tables for the space. “It was easy to accept ‘the new normal,’” Badaro says.
Staffed solely by Badaro and his charming wife Leal, 32, he still had to make rent. His landlord refused to grant any concessions except to extend the rent due date to the 15th of each month without penalty. As a new business with no record of payroll, the Badaros weren’t eligible for the PPP and SBA loans being offered to businesses facing the realities of lockdown. Also, with a small kitchen and no staff, the relief programs like Frontline Foods and Power of 10 (PW 4/29) — meant to restart restaurants in order to feed frontline workers — were not well-suited to his operation. A Go Fund Me campaign was started premised on buying prepaid meals. A friend reached out with a larger donation and a modest program of outreach to Huntington Hospital garnered attention from ABC 7 television news. A generous standing donation from a Pittsburgh based nonprofit — Focus North America — enables Hummus Labs to initiate frontline feeding outreach at Badaro’s discretion. “My goal is to do one a week.”
The FaceBook group SGV Eats also proved to be critical in sustaining Hummus Labs in its first two months of operation. “In all honesty, I don’t know where I would be without them. It was a blessing.” A burgeoning group platform for enthusiastic local foodies, the positive attention from SGV Eats signals that Badaro is up to something good in the kitchen.
Born and raised in Temple City by his parents, who immigrated from Lebanon, Badaro is fluent in Arabic and traveled to Lebanon regularly growing up. He met Leal — his wife of five years — in Beirut, while on vacation. “She was gorgeous and I was drunk…” he explains. In fact, it was Leal — a successful television broadcaster in the Middle East — who convinced Badaro to start his catering business, which allowed him to focus on his love of cooking and food. “I had my mom, who was my inspiration and my recipe book. I figured why not give it a shot? … That’s how I started in the kitchen. I loved to be in there with her. I started doing baklava for her at age 12.”
Stay tuned for his baklava at Hummus Labs. He plans to add it to the menu as business picks up.
The current menu at Hummus Labs is focused on grilled kabob preparations and Badaro’s lively and inventive calibrations of hummus, labneh, and baba ganoush. Chicken and beef kafta (seasoned ground beef molded over a skewer) go for $12.95. Filet mignon and a grilled salmon plate are priced at $15.95. I suggest considering the kabob combo which includes chicken, kafta and filet kabob portions on a bed of rice, a full “fatoush” salad (add feta and Kalamata olives for $2), and a “hummus-bar party pack” with a choice of pita chips or bread for $44.95. The Combo easily feeds two hungry adults with leftovers for a full lunch or, in our case, supper for two wayward, scavenging teens.
The kabob preps were seasoned and grilled perfectly with the filet presenting a light pink, juicy center even after my 10-minute commute home. What’s the name of this place again? Hummus Labs? Both an art and a science, hummus is where the action is. The regular menu offerings include: garlic hummus; cilantro jalapeno; and roasted tomato habanero plus “Chef’s Choice.” The latter tends to be available on weekends only. Past iterations have included miso ginger with toasted sesame and red beet dill. This past weekend, Badaro was crafting a garlic dill labneh to pair with grilled lambchops that he was offering as a weekend special for pre-orders.
The small refrigerated case (currently empty) at the front counter was originally intended as a hummus and dip array, where customers could request tastes of the selections like a gelato bar.
Trust me, they’re all excellent and of a higher order than most of us understand. This is fresh, supremely creamy hummus seasoned with care and complexity.
Badaro is unequivocal about his dedication to his ancestral culture and cuisine.
“In our culture, in Lebanese culture — I don’t know if you know any Lebanese people — food is our life.” When some doors close, others open. Lucky for us, we now have access to the art, science and Lebanese vitality of Hummus Labs.” –
950 E. Colorado Blvd., Pasadena