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Reem’s California Brings the Arab Corner Bakery Home to Fruitvale

Reem’s California launched two years ago as a food stand serving traditional Arab street foods — now, it has opened as a bright new brick-and-mortar restaurant in Oakland’s Fruitvale neighborhood. Meanwhile its namesake, Reem Assil has emerged as a community leader and rising culinary star. With help from culinary incubator La Cocina, Assil shepherded her simple concept — traditional Arab flatbreads stuffed, wrapped or topped with California produce — from a simple pop-up at Berkeley’s La Peña community center to a line-generating, worth-the-wait stand at the Ferry Building Farmers Market.

A decade ago, well before her success at the Ferry Building, Assil had been working as a community organizer in Oakland until a trip to Beirut revealed another time-honored form of community building: one centered around the corner bakeries found throughout cities in the Middle East and the Levant. With the idea for Reem’s in her head, Assil perfected her craft at the legendary East Bay co-op Arizmendi and built a business plan with the (sadly now closed) Women’s Initiative program before joining La Cocina in 2015.

Now on the verge of her official graduation from the program, with four food stands at Bay Area markets and recognition as one of the San Francisco Chronicle’s Rising Star chefs, Reem’s is already one of its most impressive (and quickly moving) alumni. And Assil’s backstory has arguably become as important to her concept as the saj — the traditional domed griddle she uses to make flatbreads to order. But even though it’s her name over the door, Reem’s first brick-and-mortar location is as much a product of Assil’s effusive personality as it is a response to the communities that supported it along the way.

A place to gather

“Home is such an elusive thing,” Assil told Eater a few days before the restaurant’s opening. Until now, Reem’s has been a temporary oasis — a destination and an occasional gathering place, but not a home. “Immigrants feel like they're missing the homeland and they're trying to recreate that — particularly in food spaces, because that is the most reminiscent of home.”

Oakland is “the closest to home that I’ve ever felt as a child of immigrants,” Assil says. “As someone who's struggled to feel like I belonged at home, I want to recreate that for myself and for people.” While there’s no BART in Beirut, the sunny corner space located steps from the Fruitvale station was “a no-brainer.”

“When you walk down International [Boulevard], it feels like Lebanon,” she explains. “You see families walking down the street with their children and you see family-friendly housing. You're seeing less and less of that in other parts of Oakland. I wanted Reem’s to be a place where everybody from all walks of life could come. This felt like a good way to do that.”

   Patricia Chang

With room for forty inside and a few dozen more on the patio, Assil is thinking big — something she says she learned from La Cocina. The space is colorful in a familiar way: Avocado green and Golden State yellow provide a backdrop for bright swooshes of Arabic calligraphy. A mural by the Trust Your Struggle collective features Palestinian activist Rasmea Odeh smiling down on the kitchen and the dining room, with a portrait of Oscar Grant affixed to her keffiyeh like a campaign button. The glass-walled bread room sits front and center by the entrance, with a small window that gives customers in line a whiff of what’s to come and opens the kitchen as a place of both hard work and social interaction. Outside, the patio seating mingles with weekly night markets and Assil wants to encourage people to linger. “Get some backgammon sets out here, some chess, some music bumping,” she says, gesturing at the open space. “You know this is a place where people can really sort of speak their mind and maybe have the hard conversations and talk their politics,” she says. “I would say it's the cafes and the bakeries where the revolutions are born.”

More than a pita

”Our kitchen is really built to be able to maximize our output on pita breads but then also all of our other specialty items,” Assil explained. “I want to be the go-to for bread in this area.” For the market stands alone, Reem’s was cranking out 600 pounds of fresh dough per week. “Needless to say, we were busting at the seams in La Cocina's commercial kitchen too,” Assil says, “because we needed access to that mixer all the time.”

More than just a place to find fresh pita, Assil envisions a space where anyone is welcome, but the food just happens to be “Arab” — a word she’d like to reclaim from the language of travel bans and terrorist threats. One customer might get a faithful version of the man’oushe they remember from childhood, while another might get a loving lesson in how to pronounce (and eat) “man’oushe” in the first place. (It’s “man-oo-shay,” by the way.)

 Patricia Chang

To that end, Reem’s menu is faithful to traditional methods, but naturally incorporates the local and seasonal produce that defines it as quintessentially Californian.

Not everyone was raised on man’oushe, but everyone in California has had a wrap or a burrito or a flatbread pizza.

Reem’s Batata Harra fried potatoes could be gussied-up garlic fries by another name. There’s a vegetarian wrap named after Draymond Green simply because all the ingredients are green and the team loves the Warriors. Fattoush, perhaps the Levant’s most famous culinary export aside from pita itself, doesn’t even need much transliteration or ingredient swapping to become the perfect California summer salad. The food is a tool for community building, Assil says. “And it's a great tool because my people are masters at hospitality. I mean every culture says they're the master at hospitality, but I think we're, like, the shit.”

A community in a growth spurt

Having lived in the neighborhood for “a good chunk” of her time in Oakland, Assil is also acutely aware of her surroundings in Fruitvale. “Particularly, I think what does it mean for an Arab street corner bakery in a Latino neighborhood? What are the overlaps of our food.” A quick peek in the kitchen can answer that: the saj at Reem’s is actually a modified tortilla griddle with a rounded dome mounted on top. Around the corner at any one of Fruitvale’s taquerias, you can also thank Lebanese immigrants for tacos al pastor. “There's a lot of similarities and there's a lot of Arab influence on Mexican cuisine,” Assil says. “I think that's an awesome opportunity to evolve our food … it's a way for people to connect across cultures. I'm hoping to do that in a not so forced way.”

Reem’s is not alone in that mission either. A couple blocks over, the Restaurant Opportunities Center recently announced it will be opening a restaurant, job training center, and community space called Colors. Reem’s sources coffee from Oakland’s Red Bay Coffee co-op and the sustainable, low-impact brewing pioneers Ale Industries are opening a taproom nearby. As for the elephant in the room in any Bay Area conversation: Assil was actually excited to hear Google has recently begun trying to right some wrongs in its own industry by opening a code learning lab for black and Latino students in the same transit village. “This is an opportunity for a new type of business to come in and set roots here and really lay our ground here,” she said, “before the rest of Oakland gets bought up by industries that might not have what's best for the community in mind.”

 Room to grow

The Reem’s operation is a mere ten people at this point, a number Assil hopes to double in the next few months as the operation starts to grow organically — in both senses of the word. Dinner and brunch service will begin sometime in July, pending a beer and wine license that will allow the restaurant to pour Palestinian wines. Wholesale bread production will ramp up, and catering weddings and events for families of immigrants and expatriates will always be a part of the core business.

While there are no plans for a Reem’s franchise, Assil says she’s played around with the idea of a more refined sit-down concept, but ultimately she sees her path more like her neighbors at the Ferry Building, Namu. With the Fruitvale space as an anchor, the goal is to eventually close the loop with Reem’s own farm, which would grow everything from produce for the shop and the market stands to the za’atar spices which are surprisingly hard to source locally. It’s an unsure proposition in the age of President Trump, but she dreams of staffing the farm with Syrian refugees — to give those skilled workers a sense of home as they acclimate to a new life in an unfamiliar place.

“It seems kind of ironic when you name a restaurant after yourself that it's not about you,” Assil says, “but it's not about me.”

Reem’s California is now open 7 a.m. - 3 p.m. Tuesday through Friday, 9 a.m. - 3 p.m. on Saturdays. Closed Sundays and Mondays. Dinner and brunch hours will follow later this summer.

Article by Andrew Dalton (c) Eater SF - All - Read full story here.