Where Politics Meets Pastry in Oakland

"I think what makes me happiest is really seeing this idea of people connecting and building with one another through food."

Photo: Courtesy Reem Assil / Photo: Luke Beard Photography

Sometimes the way to really figure out who you are, what you're supposed to be, where you go next, is to drop everything and find your way back home. With apologies to Mr. Wolfe: You can and should go home again—back to the beginning, to the place that made you and set you on your course. If you're lucky, like Bay Area chef Reem Assil, it's a journey that might even touch a place inside you that you couldn't have reached on your own.

The brick-and-mortar space Assil opened for her Arab bakery in the spring in Oakland's Fruitvale neighborhood owes itself in part to her participation in La Cocina, a business incubator program in San Francisco that focuses on women. But her vision for the enterprise itself stems from a trip she took back in 2010 to the Middle East.

Assil grew up in a suburb of Boston, the daughter of a Syrian father and Palestinian mother, in a household where Arab cuisine was a cornerstone of daily life. She went on to work for a decade as a community organizer in the Bay Area, and it was a disillusionment with what she felt was a lack of community spaces and with general attitudes toward Middle Eastern culture that preceded her trip.

What she encountered abroad was revelatory. "I was just fascinated by the Arab street corner bakeries and the role they played both in Syria and Lebanon, in the midst of political turmoil. Being these, sort of, anchor establishments. Where, when you go in those bakeries, there's just such an intense feeling of resilient community in there. You wouldn't even understand that there's political turmoil outside. I thought, oh my god, this is the part of my culture I feel is not represented in the mainstream media here in the U.S.."

And it's what she wanted to replicate in the form of a bakery that doubles as a place of connection and community. The tagline at Reem's is "Arab street food made with California love," and you get a sense of that in things like the bakery's celebration of bread. You can order the specialty at Reem's, the man'oushe—a kind of bread you see people eating so often on the streets of, say, Beirut it's analogous to the pizza slice in New York—and you can flavor it up with embellishments (or the addition of "Cali Love," as the menu encourages) like some avocado, a little veg mix or egg. There are traditional Arabic sweets like turmeric orange tea cakes and fun items like the Golden State: flatbread topped with scrambled eggs, red pepper tomato sauce, goat cheese, parsley and tomatoes.

Her eatery near the Fruitvale BART station has also been a place of tough conversations (that's probably an understatement). Some of that was crystallized in a mural displaying a Palestinian activist. The image on one wall of Rasmea Odeh—in 1970, Israel convicted her in connection with a bombing in Jerusalem that killed two students but supporters say her confession was coerced—brought on a flurry of one-star reviews on Yelp. The bakery also got hate calls from early on. The store's community of supporters flocked even more tightly to it, to the point that in the new year, Reem's is hoping to staff up with the ambition to more than double its revenue.

Reem got to this point because she knows who she is and what she wants her bakery to be: a place where politics meets food and her passion for activism and social justice. To wit: the restaurant serves Arabs, Israelis, any and all. For Reem herself, that was always the dream.

"Reem's is my coming of age to my own sort of understanding of my identity as a Palestinian or a Syrian or child of immigrants—all those things coming together," Assil says. "I think what makes me happiest is really seeing this idea of people connecting and building with one another through food. When you see it in reality, it just makes me know that my calling was to organize people through food."

Reem's California, 3301 E. 12th Street, Suite 133, Oakland, CA, reemscalifornia.com

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