A Bakery Divided
Reem’s California mixes bread and politics in Oakland’s Fruitvale district.
Man’oushe, a traditional Arab flatbread.
Photos by Pat Mazzera
I generally subscribe to the idea that food and politics are best left separate. My job as a reviewer is to review food, and aligning or opposing political beliefs never altered the taste of my burrito, spring roll, or short ribs. Besides, I’ve always liked to think of food as a unifying force.
Certainly for Reem Assil—a longtime community activist and daughter of a Palestinian refugee and Syrian immigrant—the two are unavoidably entwined. She modeled her new Reem’s California after the kind of corner bakeries common in the Arab world—and which she witnessed firsthand traveling through Syria and Lebanon—that often serve a second function as stabilizing community hubs and gathering spaces in areas rife with political and social upheaval. And after more than a decade of oft-frustrating work as a community and labor organizer in the Bay Area, the idea of creating a safe haven for the kinds of vulnerable folks she was trying to help was immensely appealing.
Reem Assil in front of the mural at her restaurant.
“I saw that bread and bakeries were a big part of cohesion of these communities; it added to their resiliency and was part of people’s daily routines,” she said. “And I felt that was something that was missing as an Arab American; there weren’t enough institutions where people could gather and feel rooted.”
And so Assil enrolled in the baking program at Laney College, while learning the trade at local bakeries such as Arizmendi in Emeryville. She was accepted at San Francisco’s famed small food business incubator La Cocina and started selling her “Arab street food” at a handful of Bay Area farmers markets. The centerpiece was man’oushe, a traditional Arab flatbread. She opened up her own brick-and-mortar location in Oakland’s Fruitvale district earlier this year, where she has committed to paying a livable wage to a staff composed mostly of those with traditional barriers to employment, including women, people of color, refugees, and the previously incarcerated.
Assil has made no secret of her staunch support for Palestinian independence, which places her directly inside the roiling cauldron of one of the most volatile issues in global politics. And that volatility boiled over when word of Reem’s mural leaked out. The mural is the colorful, smiling depiction of Palestinian activist Rasmea Odeh that prominently greets entering visitors. While lionized in many Arab communities, Odeh is a highly controversial figure. In the mural, Odeh wears a pin with the image of Oscar Grant.
Critics flooded Reem’s Yelp and Facebook pages with one-star reviews in which the critiques of the mural tended to overshadow any opinion of the food. For her part, Assil isn’t backing away from the controversy, explaining that her decision to depict Odeh was based as much upon her decades spent helping and organizing low-income Arab-American women in Chicago as her longtime Palestinian activism.
“Look, I’m an unapologetically Arab and Palestinian woman that wants to speak my truth, so it's not surprising that there’s been a backlash,” she said. “For us, everyone is welcome at Reem’s . . . We’re not trying to push politics on anyone, but at the same time, we shouldn’t be scared to insert our own narrative of people that are inspiring to us.”
More than anything, Assil said, the bakery was designed to be an expression of the kind of warm Arab hospitality she experienced when traveling in the Middle East.
And I have to say (putting my food reviewer hat firmly back on), that’s the first thing I noticed at Reem’s: its warmth. The corner spot in Fruitvale Village is flooded with natural light and painted in a wonderfully bright color palette. The interior is simple, but tidy and welcoming. The staff (none of whom engaged me in any political discussion) was uniformly pleasant and helpful.
Ordering at the counter on my first visit, my server immediately steered me to toward the man’oushe. Reem’s makes this pita-like Arab flatbread the old-school way, by stretching slow-leavened dough out before cooking it in a custom-made oven or a domed saj griddle. It can be eaten open-faced like a pizza or wrapped like a gyro or burrito. You have a few choices of toppings, but our server recommended the traditional za’atar with the “veg mix” of tomatoes, cucumbers, and mint, plus a drizzle of labneh, a tangy Middle Eastern yogurt.
It was a good recommendation. The flatbread is great, balancing a crispy bottom crust with a pillowy, doughy top. The za’atar, a mix of wild thyme, sumac, and sesame seeds, provides an aromatic, sharply herbal punch that was mellowed by the creamy, tangy yogurt. Tomatoes and cucumbers offer some acid, moisture, and freshness. Overall, it came off as light and healthy. But it’s the za’atar, and specifically the sumac, that gives it an exotic twist to set it apart from typical California-style wraps. It’s what makes it “Arab” and what makes it interesting.
Sumac also makes a cameo in another of my favorite items: the Pali Cali wrap. The moist chicken is braised in sumac, and the deep-red, dried spice adds an interesting citrusy tang to the tender meat that works well with the sweet caramelized onion and peppery arugula. The flatbread works nicely as a wrap, offering more of a doughy presence than a tortilla but not getting in the way of the interior ingredients. It’s also enormous, making the $13 price easier to swallow.
The Pali Cali is also one of the few items on the vegetarian-friendly menu that contains meat. Arab cuisine in general seems to skew fairly light and healthy.
Interestingly, some of the heavier dishes were on the breakfast menu. One of the heartiest was the shashuka. Served in a small cazuela-like dish, two baked eggs top a spicy-sweet, almost chili-like tomato-pepper sauce with underlying notes of cinnamon and caraway seed. I tend to prefer my breakfast items savory, but this one grew on me, offering a nice mix of spicy, sweet, acid, and umami from the eggs.
The Golden State is a breakfast pizza in which the scrambled eggs are incorporated into a red-pepper sauce to form a dense but tasty paste-like layer atop thin flatbread that’s similar to a Mexican sope. It’s topped with cherry tomatoes and goat cheese.
That’s one of several dishes in which California-style ingredients—tomatoes, goat cheese, arugula—make an appearance. The cuisine seems well suited as a base for this treatment, which is something that mostly helps but occasionally hurts the food at Reem’s. I enjoyed the lightness and freshness of the overall palate, but I occasionally longed for a bit more punch, for the Arab ingredients to be given a bit more room to shine. In the MLM wrap, for instance, I really enjoyed the sujuk, a flavorful, slightly sour spiced sausage, but the thin slices were overpowered by the flatbread, Mozzarella, and arugula.
Ultimately, however, I thought the food at Reem’s tilted more toward the subtle than the bland in that the more I ate of most dishes, the more I liked them.
That’s particularly true for what was my favorite part of the menu, the mezze dips. The baba ghanouj offers smokiness from the eggplant and is topped with a sweet pomegranate molasses. The labneh yogurt is thick and tangy, sort of a cross between sour cream and Greek yogurt. The beet in the beet hummus adds a welcome sweet, vegetal element to the tahini purée. And the muhammara (my favorite) combines the deep flavor notes of roasted red pepper with a bit of spice and texture from the not-completely-puréed walnuts. Each—I’d recommend getting the sampler, which lets you taste all four for $12—is understated but quite flavorful in its own way.
Ironically, I think the main obstacle in Reem’s success won’t come from the food’s subtlety but rather from the lack thereof when it comes to its wall decoration. There’s no getting around the fact that that controversial mural has and will continue to provoke a strong reaction. And whether you choose to dine here may ultimately come down to which side you fall on a hot-button political topic. Or whether you really can separate food and politics after all.
3301 E. 12th St. Suite 133, Oakland, 510-852-9390, ReemsCalifornia.com.
Breakfast and lunch, Tuesday-Friday 7am-3pm, Saturday 9am-3pm.
Average entrée: $10. No beer or wine. Credit cards accepted.
This report appears in the August edition of our sister publication, The East Bay Monthly.