Brighter than a box of Gain detergent and as commanding as the how-to-eat-sushi instructions that graced the wall at the former Ichi Sushi location, Chris Gazaleh and arts collective Trust your Struggle‘s collaborative mural of Palestinian activist Rasmea Odeh — who was deported to Jordan earlier this year after a lengthy, complicated immigration-court battle — fairly dominates Reem Assil’s eponymous Arab bakery in Fruitvale. Odeh is depicted wearing a hijab, her dark hair visible, and she’s smiling broadly over a neon-green background. Overlaid on it, and on the pillar opposite, is Arabic calligraphy in equally bright colors. As Fruitvale BART is almost directly overhead, a small image of Oscar Grant, shot in the station by a transit cop on New Year’s Day 2009, is inset in a small oval like a cameo.
Almost anyplace else, political art like this would risk crowding out the centrality of the food the way it’s dinging the restaurant’s Yelp rating. (A sizable number of people regard Odeh as a terrorist, and they’re bestowing a lot of one-star reviews that, at best, glance on the food. They’re also disproportionately not from around these parts.) But at Reem’s, it does not do so. At the risk of generalizing, that’s owing to the importance of generosity and hospitality in many Arab cuisines.
If you don’t #feelthewarmth from the saj, or grill, you’ll feel it from the menu board, which explains how to say the name of the 10-inch flatbread known as man’oushe — with the caveat that “we’ll still love you if you struggle to pronounce it.” And you definitely will from the staff, who seem to have been hired on the basis of their zest for walking out from the kitchen to check on you by clapping their hands together and holding their breath in the hope that you’re enjoying your food.
Which you will. By all means, do not miss out on the man’oushe — plural, mana’eesh — especially the cheese version ($6) made with briny akkawi, which is like a mild feta. The intensely flavorful Pali Cal ($15) is even better. Admittedly, it’s a bit liquidy. But what comes out of this sumac-spiced chicken wrap is more like a broth than a greasy residue, and you can always mop it up by tearing off a corner of flatbread. Adding akkawi, with its hit of salt, brought things out further; there’s really no reason not to throw some on there. The only dud in the savory column was the lamb mu’ajinaat, a pastry with an imbalance of dough to filling and slightly burnt corners. I almost talked myself into enjoying the char, but the occasional burnt bits that collect on the tongue were too distracting.
Just as the agua de jamaica at Glena’s (in last week’s review) was immensely refreshing, so too was Reem’s hibiscus cooler — and it’s only $3. It’s not particularly sugary, which is great because the sweets are many: baklawa, mahlabiya (a rosewater and orange-blossom milk custard with pistachio), and sfoof, turmeric orange tea cakes made with semolina flour.
But the very best thing I ate at Reem’s was the shakshuka ($12), a Tunisian dish of eggs poached in tomato-and-onion sauce and served in a cast-iron skillet, topped with goat cheese. It’s the epitome of breakfast-for-dinner — though I did eat it before 9 a.m. — and much to my delight, it comes with exactly the right number of toasted pitas to scoop out that cumin-heavy sauce. Filling and uncomplicated, it’s like the Levantine equivalen of peas porridge in the pot, nine days old. And for at least the third time this month, I found myself struck dumb by the power of parsley.
Given that this is breakfast, you can look to the list of “drinks to keep you woke” — espresso, iced cardamom coffee, and black mint tea, among others. I suspect even apolitical types will find plenty to love at Reem’s, and members of the resistance will find it irresistible.
Reem’s, 3301 East 12th St., Suite 133, Oakland, 510-832-9390 or reemscalifornia.com
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