When I’m handed the menu in Zaki Kabob House, a cozy Middle Eastern restaurant on the Berkeley-Albany border, its pages of photographs, resembling a family scrapbook, pique my interest. Among the usual hummus, falafel and shawarma, I find Palestinian, Jordanian and Egyptian dishes with exotic names and intriguing descriptions — “molokhia … popular since the time of the Pharaohs.” Curious to learn the story behind this 3-year-old family-owned restaurant, I ask Ramzy Ayyad, the son and business manager, if I can speak with his parents.
My meeting with the Ayyads, the eatery’s founders, on their restaurant’s patio a week later, begins a bit awkwardly. Ramzy introduces me to his mother, explaining that she has recently returned from her annual trip back to Jerusalem, where she gets inspiration for their classic Palestinian dishes. At first, Fayza, who wears the traditional Muslim hijab (head covering) and a long hand-embroidered dress, replies to my questions in soft Arabic, her head down, with Ramzy translating. I feel some trepidation about how the interview will proceed. Then I inquire about spheeha, an unfamiliar dish I spot on the menu. Instead of describing it, she asks daughter Layla, assistant cook and kitchen manager, to bring me one. While I surrender to the warm turmeric-infused disk topped by lamb, tomato and tahini and murmur some words of appreciation, the ice breaks and Fayza switches to fluent English.
When she moved to San Francisco in 1981 to join her husband, Kameem, who had already lived here several years, Fayza had to do without many staples of Palestinian cuisine. “For years, I just forgot about fava beans, molokhia [a spinach-like vegetable] and spices.” The couple lived in a big house with 15 relatives. Although she had studied English in high school, Californians found her accent hard to understand. So she mainly spoke Arabic, working 18-hour days with her husband and his brothers in a Berkeley grocery and liquor store they co-owned. But the liquor always bothered Fayza. “It hurt my heart because it is against my religion.” In 1987, this determined woman decided she’d had enough of the liquor store. She taught herself to drive, attended San Francisco City College to improve her English, got a license and opened a child care center in her home, which she ran for 20 years.
While she cooked Palestinian food at home, Fayza slowly developed a passion for pumpkin, apple and sweet potato pies. She also appreciated American potato salad but adjusted it to her Middle Eastern palate, substituting yogurt for mayo and tahini for mustard. But she vowed, “never to eat a hot dog, hamburger or donut” because as a Muslim, she did not want to inadvertently consume pork or lard.
At this point in her story, husband Kameem arrives and joins our conversation. Acceding to his wife’s wishes, he gave up the liquor store and opened a halal meat market in Berkeley, where Fayza worked as a butcher, carving up goats and sides of beef. After Kameem suffered a heart attack in 2001, the economic downturn hit the family hard. Then their El Cerrito house burned down. “We lost everything. But,” he says, “you can’t give up. There is always opportunity. When one door closes, another opens.”
The door to their dream restaurant did not swing open easily. The now modest green building on San Pablo Avenue was a KFC when the family first noticed it. It was then replaced by a string of other eateries that all went belly up, including: Chinese, Korean and African restaurants and a donut shop.
The day Kameem found a tiny “For Sale” note taped on the door, the abandoned property was dark, damp, littered and an open-air dorm for homeless people. “The place was in such bad shape,” he recounts, “that friends told me I was a fool for buying it.” But the challenge appealed to Kameem, and he and his family toiled every day for eight months to clean and remodel it. “We filled dumpsters the size of elephants with trash,” he recalls.
Neighbors were discouraging at first, informing Kameem that given the spot’s history, they would be afraid to frequent the new cafe. But as the Ayyads cleaned and painted and lined the walls with patterned tiles that reminded them of home, local residents began rooting for them.
One day, when the remodeling seemed complete, the neighbors couldn’t control their curiosity (or hunger) any longer and formed a line at the front door for lunch. Since the restaurant had not yet officially opened, Fayza wasn’t quite ready and just cooked salad, chicken and rice. As time went by, she added a variety of Middle Eastern favorites to the menu. The signature dish at Zaki (which means delicious in Arabic) is their organic, rotisserie chicken, marinated in olive oil, lemon juice and vinegar and rubbed with Fayza’s secret blend of spices.
Many people have also tried to discourage Fayza, telling her to change her name to something more American, like Liza, and lose the hijab. Her traditional clothing often elicits stereotypical projections — like total strangers asking if she’s hiding a bomb under her dress. When Ramzy had some problems in high school, his teacher scheduled a parent conference. Seeing Fayza’s headscarf, the teacher thought she had it figured out. “Maybe in your culture your husband hits you and so you hit your son and he takes it out on the other kids,” she said knowingly. Fayza is incensed at these erroneous cultural assumptions. “My father raised us to have an open mind about others,” she says. Indeed, her cadre of international kitchen workers — Algerian, Ethiopian, Chinese and Mexican — could start a mini-UN.
At Zaki, Fayza is the recipe developer, drawing on her father’s Moroccan and mother’s Palestinian heritage. “We make true Middle Eastern food here and offer dishes no one else has,” she says proudly. “I’ve seen strange things in America, like people putting mayonnaise in their baba ganoush and peanut butter in their hummus.”
The ultimate tragedy has also been part of the Ayyads’ life here. In 2010, Fayza tells me, her eyes downcast, their 20-year-old son Asama was killed in a drive-by shooting, after leaving a Richmond mosque one night — a heartbreaking case of mistaken identity.
This admission halts the conversation. What a terrible irony, to think that the Ayyads left the hostility and bloodshed in Palestine for a better life in America. After my expression of empathy for her incomprehensible loss, Fayza smoothes her dress and says with quiet dignity, “Life and culture are beautiful, but human beings can make it ugly.”
In a moment, the energy shifts and she rises, inviting me into the kitchen to taste maklouba, one of Zaki’s daily specials. “This is a Jordanian-Palestinian dish that we eat at home every Friday. Maklouba means upside-down.” Fayza and Layla take a huge pan layered with chicken, cauliflower, potatoes and rice out of the oven and gently turn it over onto a giant platter and offer me a bite of the warm, comforting mélange.
Kameem looks around lovingly at his popular restaurant, which is often packed, especially Saturday nights, when local artists play live music. “My grocery store was like a 7-11, people came in, bought something and left quickly. I didn’t get to know anyone. Here it’s like our home; we have more time. We can sit and talk and get to know our customers.”
“My dream is to steer people away from violence and teach them to cherish the life God gave them,” says Fayza, pouring me another cup of tea. “I want them to know that Muslims are not savages and introduce them to us through our food. Some people carry guns. I carry a spoon, some nutmeg and pepper.”
Zaki Kabob House, 1101 San Pablo Ave., Albany, (510) 527-5452, www.zakikabobhouse.com, is open for lunch 11 a.m.–3 p.m. daily and dinner 5–9 p.m. Sun.–Thu. and 5–10 p.m. Fri.–Sat.