An Arab Bakery in Oakland Full of California Love
SOURCE: THE NEW YORK TIMES
BY: REBECCA FLINT MARX
Before she embarked on a baking career, Reem Assil grew up in a Palestinian-Syrian household and spent a decade as a community organizer. Both of these things are evident at Reem’s California, the bright, bustling Arab bakery Ms. Assil opened in Oakland’s Fruitvale neighborhood in May.
Reem’s is one of a handful of Arab bakeries in the Bay Area — but it is likely the only one where you’ll find the children’s book “A Is for Activist” on the shelves and an enormous mural of the controversial Palestinian activist Rasmeah Odeh on the wall. Affixed to Ms. Odeh’s kaffiyeh is a button of Oscar Grant III, the young black man killed in 2009 by transit police at the Fruitvale BART station, which looms just across the street. (The story inspired the acclaimed film “Fruitville Station.”)
But while social justice “has always been a core component of Reem’s,” Ms. Assil said, her business was inspired by the bakeries she visited during a trip to the Middle East several years ago. “Even though there was political turmoil outside, you never would feel it inside,” she said. “In Oakland, I felt we didn’t have enough of those places where people could feel alive and safe and connected.”
Ms. Assil’s other goal was to show her customers the complex world of Middle Eastern food that lies beyond hummus and falafel. While there’s hummus at Reem’s — thick and silky — the brief menu is built around man’oushe, a Lebanese flatbread that Ms. Assil bakes on a domed griddle called a saj. You can order the man’oushe (pronounced mah-noo-SHAY) carpeted with either za’atar, a spice mixture fragrant with sumac and wild thyme, or akkawi, a salty brined cheese. Both variations can be customized in classic California fashion — the za’atar man’oushe with avocado and a runny egg is a straight road to contentment.
Indeed, Ms. Assil calls her food “Arab street food made with California love.” And there’s much to love here: Reem’s version of muhammara, the Syrian walnut-red pepper spread, makes a voluptuous partner to freshly baked pita, while the mu’ajinaat (pronounced moo-aji-NAT), a hand-held turnover stuffed with spinach and onion, is like the platonic ideal of a Hot Pocket. At breakfast, the rich, nuanced shakshuka, a thick tomato-pepper stew topped with poached eggs, provides a lusty welcome to the day. For dessert, there traditional Arabic sweets like sfoof (turmeric-orange tea cakes), mahalabiya (Egyptian milk custard), and baklava, a phyllo-encased honey-nut pastry that Ms. Assil perfumes with rosewater and orange blossom.
While Ms. Assil’s food has drawn plenty of praise, the bakery’s mural has invited criticism: in late June, an online op-ed charged that Ms. Odeh’s portrayal glorified terrorism, and the bakery’s Yelp page was besieged by a slew of one-star reviews. “It was really scary,” Ms. Assil said of the experience, but added that it won her new allies. “I’m feeling really blessed by the following we’ve built,” she said. “It’s really a testament to when you build community, your customers support you.”