Can Beit Rima Save Church Street from Extinction?

This exceptional Arabic comfort food with some fine-dining flourishes just might do it.

Chicken shish tawook plate. Photo by Peter Lawrence Kane

For months and months, SF Weekly has recorded the dismal state of the Church-and-Market part of the Castro, which is entering the retail equivalent of a total shame spiral. To recite a partial litany once more: Sparky’s, Home, Chilango, Chow (hopefully temporarily), Crepevine, and other eateries have all closed, and of course Aardvark Books is gone, too. The problems are structural and no single business can likely arrest this trend, but if it’s foolhardy to pin our hopes on Beit Rima, we can all at least patronize it and hope for the best.

There’s cause for hope. Samir Mogannam — a relative of Sam Mogannam of the Bi-Rite Family of Businesses — has taken over one of his father’s 25-year-old Burgermeister locations and turned it into a fast-casual-ish spot for Arabic comfort food with palpable fine dining accents. Named for his mother (Beit Rima means “Rima’s house”) it’s homey and hip all at once, with baby’s breath in bottles on the table and witty art from the Saudi artist known as Nasser. Yeah, the ceiling is low and the soundsystem a little tinny, but a sense of warmth and hospitality out-radiates the heat from the oven. Order a Cali asparagus special and a lamb shank, and the cashier may very well pause and say, “That’s what I’m going to order for dinner!” and half-forget to ring you up because they got swept up extolling the virtues of your good taste.

That asparagus is really something. (Almost all the vegetable-centric dishes are something, but we’ll get there.) Blistered and slightly blackened, these stalks are soothed with olive oil, covered in a garlic-chili relish and a pistachio dukkah, a toasted, vegan nut-and-seed blend that Beit Rima doesn’t opt to pulverize. Should you want a more advanced class in texture, the hamleh (pan-roasted green garbanzo beans that you eat in a manner not unlike edamame) is the best candidate, full of cumin and a lemony-tahini sauce for dipping. For five dollars, the portion is almost daunting.

It’s also crucial to order ful, a sometime fava-bean dip that’s more of a cauldron-hot, cumin-filled porridge, as improved by a soft egg as tonkotsu ramen broth is. If you need more pita to scoop it up, it’ll be there before you ask.

Lemon brightens a baked halloumi, served with plenty of oil in a skillet for a minimum of squeak, and the charred spring onion adds that almost evanescent, precipice-of-spring note that’s so particular to this precise season. Toum, or salty Lebanese garlic sauce, covers the three skewers of yogurt-marinated chicken on the shish tawook plate — which at first glance might look like something Applebee’s would serve if it acquired an adventurous streak. But it’s richer and lighter atop the sweet-ish rice, not weighing it all down like a collapsed dairy tarp, and the rice is also credited to Mom. The $26 lamb shank, jutting out of its tomato-thick bowl of maftool, or Palestinian hand-rolled couscous, was perfect, the bone coming unmoored from the meat as easily as Wart, the future King Arthur, loosens Excalibur in The Sword in the Stone.

Rare among dishes that are otherwise seasoned so expertly, the shakshuka — a Moroccan tomato stew that’s practically common on California brunch menus — was under-spiced, nearly egg-free, and altogether underwhelming, not nearly as appealing as the lambs’ maftool-and-tomato sauce. While it’s not nearly as hearty, and it’s listed as the sole dessert, the muhalabia was a beauty. A pudding made with orange blossom water and gum Arabic (listed as “mastic,” from the tree whose name means “to chew”) plus a potpourri of floral pistachios, it was balanced and nourishing, like what lured the Canaanites to the land of milk and honey.

People would probably take advantage otherwise, but you can sense that it probably kills Mogannam to have to charge even a measly dollar for shay, a minty black tea. On one visit, the charge didn’t even appear, which may have been forgetfulness or someone staying true to the spirit of the place.

Beit Rima, 138 Church St., 415-710-2397 or beitrimasf.com

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