I don’t consider myself superstitious, but I’m a little concerned about what will happen when I submit this review of Portland’s Nura Hummus and Falafel Bar. I was minutes away from clicking “Send” on my first write-up of the Levantine hotspot back in March 2020, but held off temporarily when it looked like we’d all be taking a two-week pause from eating in restaurants. As you’ve probably guessed, that original review never made it to print.

But Nura itself has never been far from my thoughts. Once a month or so, I’d go online and order their overstuffed falafel pockets, indulgent-yet-healthful sandwiches that showcase the restaurant’s herby falafel and crunchy Shirazi salad of tomato, mint and lemon juice ($11.25). I’d drizzle on some extra garlicky toum sauce ($0.93) and look forward to the day when I’d be able to circle back and fill in the Nura-shaped gap left in my reviewing docket. Really, I had no other choice after I selected this fast-casual business as my Best New Restaurant of 2020.

There should have been little doubt that Nura would survive to earn itself a second chance at a full review. Owners Cameron and Dylan Gardner imagined their Monument Square shop as an extension of their much-adored Falafel Mafia food truck, so when indoor dining went away, the two could rely on their well-honed skill at selling pita pockets to-go. It also helped that pre-pandemic, takeout already comprised about half of Nura’s orders.

“We were crazy busy during our first couple of months after we opened on Black Friday of 2019. That January and February, we were constantly breaking records, getting busier and busier, until we were doing 200 or 300 lunches a day, both dine-in and takeout,” chef/owner Dylan Gardner said. “Then COVID hit, and we went to 100% of business as takeout. It wasn’t quite the same amount in sales, but we were still busy. Now we’re back to 60% takeout, and the offices aren’t even full yet. I can count the buildings, including this one, that are still mostly empty. We’re just wondering what it’ll be like when people come back full-bore.”

My bet is on jam-packed, especially now that Nura’s interior has been spruced up with a new ceiling, a backsplash wall of new tiles and a fresh color palette of rich yellows and blues that make the formerly drab counter-service retail space feel lively.

This formerly vegetarian restaurant has also expanded its potential customer base by adding meat dishes to the menu. “We still want to offer a safe place for vegans and vegetarians, so we are careful about cross-contamination, but with the changes, we won’t get people coming in the door, looking around and leaving when they see we don’t have any meat,” Dylan Gardner said. “Our chicken shawarma is already easily 40% of what we’re selling.”


Nura’s chicken shawarma. Ben McCanna/Staff Photographer

And with good reason. At a recent Nura meal, my dinner guest and I were bowled over by the savory balance of crisp, tangy cabbage salad and still-juicy thigh meat in the chicken shawarma pocket ($11.25). Our conversation stopped cold once we started eating and didn’t pick back up again until I mentioned that I had a chat scheduled with Nura’s chef that weekend.

“I only want to know one thing,” she said, wiping garlic-yogurt sauce from her fingers. “How do they get that shawarma spice all over every piece of chicken?” Indeed, the coverage of cumin and coriander was impressive. I searched but could not find a millimeter of unseasoned meat anywhere in the sandwich.

“I’m glad your friend noticed that,” Dylan Gardner said. “We slice the chicken very thin before we cook it. And we blend the spices with oil to turn it into a heavy marinade. Our cooks have to rub it in, and they know they have to be persistent. If one of them catches any bare spots later in the day, they’ll ask, ‘Hey, who rubbed this chicken?!’” That’s not a euphemism, that’s thorough technique.

Yet my most pressing question during our phone chat wasn’t about meat, Nura’s lack of desserts, nor even about the terrific falafels that the Gardners have been making since they were kids.

I was wondering what Dylan Gardner had done to his hummus.

Nura’s shawarma-dusted fries with aioli. Ben McCanna/Staff Photographer

For a business that originally billed itself as a “hummusiya,” an Israeli term reserved for a café whose menu orbits around the chickpea, garlic and tahini spread, Nura’s hummus was above-average, but never truly a star attraction. Falafel, sure. Golden shawarma-spiced French fries buzzing with smoked paprika, onion powder and a hint of cinnamon ($5.56), absolutely. Composed, sumac-tart salads of falafel or chicken ($11.25/$13.25) built on a base of gently dressed endive, fresh mint leaves, and shaved watermelon radish, absolutely. But never really hummus.


That is, until Dylan Gardner revamped the recipe over the past few months.

“Maybe it’s a controversial change, but I’ve come around to the idea that really great hummus is about more than just chickpeas. When we first started, it was more about the beans. We were using tahini in a 1:10 ratio (tahini to garbanzo beans). But I was tasting all this amazing hummus with a balance up to even 50:50 in some cases,” he told me. “Then we started to be able to get really good Soom tahini: the expensive stuff. It’s super fresh, still emulsified and never separated, almost almondy like a raw almond. So the ratio is now a lot higher.”

The tweaks didn’t stop there. Gardner also started incorporating crushed ice into his hummus to cool down the friction-generated heat that deflates the mixture and generates “burps of air” instead of fine bubbles.

Today, Nura’s hummus ($8.60 pt./$17.10 qt.) is extraordinary, and the upgrade has improved every dish it is used in, which is to say, practically everything on the menu. Imagine the texture of soft-serve ice cream – not as it descends from the machine in a dense curlicue, but after it has settled under the warmth of the sun, just long enough for the sharp lines from the extruding die to blur as the first dribble makes its way down the inside of your wrist.

This is glorious, world-class hummus, and I want you to taste it so badly that I’m willing to tempt fate and click “Submit” on this long-overdue review. If the world ends, don’t blame me. I did it for the hummus.

The classic hummus bowl at Nura. The restaurant has revamped its hummus recipe and what an improvement! Ben McCanna/Staff Photographer

RATING:  ****


WHERE:  1 Monument Way, Portland. 536-0065. nuraportland.com

SERVING:  Tuesday to Thursday, 11:30 a.m.- 5 p.m.; Friday & Saturday, 11:30 a.m. – 8 p.m.

PRICE RANGE: Sandwiches and salads: $10.25 -$13.50

NOISE LEVEL: Airport shuttle

VEGETARIAN: Most dishes

GLUTEN-FREE: Many dishes


RESERVATIONS: Ordering online strongly recommended

BAR: Beer only


BOTTOM LINE: Peek online at Nura Hummus and Falafel Bar’s menu, and you’d be forgiven for thinking it sounds like a brick-and-mortar, counter-service clone of its parent, the Falafel Mafia mobile kitchen. But with the luxury of a full-sized commercial kitchen, owners Dylan and Cameron Gardner have extended their menu in depth, breadth and polish. At Nura, which means “gleam” or “illumination” in Farsi, chef Dylan Gardner assembles nuanced, sub-$15 salads that showcase bitter greens, shaved watermelon radish and mint leaves along with the restaurant’s signature falafel – toasty outside and vivid green from cilantro and parsley inside. Here, you’ll also find excellent chicken shawarma sandwiches and bowls, spice-dusted French fries, and our favorite dish on the menu: Nura’s airy, garlicky, newly re-imagined hummus. Considering that a pint of this transcendently smooth hummus and a four-pack of the restaurant’s za’atar-sprinkled pitas (not housemade, but nonetheless very good) will set you back about $20 including tax and tip, Nura might represent the best bang-for-your-buck in Portland dining right now. Get there before the tourists and returning office workers do.

Ratings follow this scale and take into consideration food, atmosphere, service and value and type of restaurant (a casual bistro will be judged as a casual bistro, an expensive upscale restaurant as such): Poor ** Fair *** Good **** Excellent ***** Extraordinary. The Maine Sunday Telegram visits each restaurant once; if the first meal was unsatisfactory, the reviewer returns for a second. The reviewer makes every attempt to dine anonymously.

Andrew Ross has written about food and dining in New York and the United Kingdom. He and his work have been featured on Martha Stewart Living Radio and in The New York Times. He is the recipient of five recent Critic’s Awards from the Maine Press Association.

Contact him at: andrewross.maine@gmail.com

Twitter: @AndrewRossME

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