When you step inside the Outer Mission complex that houses the La Cocina food business incubator kitchen and offices on a regular weekday afternoon, it’s easy to be overwhelmed by the busy chefs, the delicious smells of baked goods and roasting meats, and the constant whirl of activity in preparation for the various markets, kiosks and catering events coming up in a few hours. There are spots for eight participants in this kitchen and it definitely seems like a ninth would be impossible to squeeze in.
The space might be tight but the goals for the nonprofit are admirably enormous. Its mission is to find talented low-income food entrepreneurs, generally women of color and immigrant communities (a handful of men have been in the program, including the very successful Onigilly concept).
Caleb Zigas, La Cocina’s Executive Director who has been involved since it debuted in 2005, told us that the incubator’s 11 staff members avoid using words like “teach” or “empower.” These women have already identified a product that they excel at and a worthy price for it — they aren’t starting from scratch concept-wise, but they usually are just cooking for friends or selling from home. Zigas pointed out that, “They know everything there is to know about business. What they may not know is how to formalize that business into a marketplace that intentionally throws up barriers.”
We talked with five of La Cocina’s graduates who now have brick-and-mortar restaurants or kiosks. There were universal problems acknowledged by all where they could never possibly have defeated certain barriers without La Cocina’s assistance — the surging real estate prices, not speaking English well or looking a certain way being chief among them. Even La Cocina itself faces some of these problems for its proposed food hall planned for the heart of the struggling Tenderloin in 2019.
La Cocina’s program has three application deadlines a year and information orientations for interested individuals every other month. Once you’re in the program, it can take up to eight years to go through pre-incubation planning, the incubation period, finding capital and space, the exit to that space, and finally “graduation” when the business is self-sufficient. Yes, it can be as brisk as a one-year degree in theory but is much more likely to be a lengthy medical school and residency-type of time frame.
La Cocina graduates have had incredible success in a wide variety of cuisines and business types. We talked with women serving Cambodian, Southern, Mexican, Arab and Gujarat (Indian) cooking. The current class includes Nepalese, Jamaican, Japanese and Salvadoran-themed businesses. Over 30 brick-and-mortars from graduates exist around the Bay Area (a handful are commissary kitchens).
Those present entrepreneurs in the La Cocina kitchen are following in the esteemed footsteps of women who never thought they would ever call a restaurant their own. Here are the stories of five graduates who are now navigating the Bay Area restaurant scene with their own businesses.
Barely 45 diners can fit into the serene, colorful dining room of Besharam, a spunky newcomer located in the Minnesota Street Project art gallery complex, in a far industrial corner of the Dogpatch. Despite the small size and isolated location, Besharam screams with relentless character that can be as boisterous as the heat in the spiced garlic sauce served with the grilled chicken kebab and hand-rolled flatbread at lunch. Chef and co-owner Heena Patel decided on the name, “shameless” in Hindi, because she knows she’s different than everyone else — in her family, in the Bay Area, in the world — and she isn’t afraid to show that, hey, she’s running the show at a restaurant in San Francisco and never in a million years would she have expected that while growing up as the second of five daughters in the Gujarat state of India.
There is bleu cheese naan with wasabi raita on the menu and a giant pop-art mural by HateCopy’s Maria Qamar next to the open kitchen with a Hindi woman drinking a cocktail. The soundtrack is bumping all lunch and dinner-long with Michael Jackson, Indian pop and seemingly everything in between. It’s definitely Heena’s restaurant.
So, there are pavs (sliders, a classic street food) served with little gems and pickled shiitake mushrooms on the menu, co-existing with a grilled zucchini salad and fish moilee with coconut curry and turmeric rice. In the evening, there are shishito peppers stuffed with a tamarind and chickpea filling; edamame dumplings in a lentil broth; paratha tacos accented by a strawberry-mint chutney; and ghee-roasted pork chops. Heema puts her Gujarat-meets-world philosophy about the always hotly debated “authenticity” question very bluntly: “You can take it or leave it.”
After all, she’s come all the way to this point from Gujarat to London to Marin County to full-time restaurant in San Francisco. She defeated the odds and has earned the right to cook what she wants to cook.
She got a home-science degree from Mumbai University and was given the common “a or b” decision from her father — continue studying and get a master’s degree, or go to London and find a man to marry. She elected for the latter and amidst all the boys who lined up for her, she found her husband, Paresh, after two weeks. When she was 25-years old and Paresh was 30, the couple and their then three-year old daughter moved from London to Marin County on a business visa. The two ran an adjacent liquor store and flower shop in Terra Linda (by San Rafael) for 20 years.
It wasn’t easy upon arriving in California for Heena, being someone who looks differently, speaks differently and didn’t know a word of English at the time. In 1992, Heena would struggle on the phone at the shops, answering calls and unable to communicate clearly, despite her best efforts. On the other end of the line, one particularly disrespectful man screamed at her for her lack of English and to this day gets her worked up emotionally. It was not a welcoming way for her to step into a supposedly welcoming country.
Sitting down with La Cocina alums in the past few weeks, we’ve found a theme in how there was a mutual connection that led the chef/entrepreneur to the program. That happened in 2013 for Heena where she self-admittedly had “zero idea of the food business” but “checked off all the boxes” for what La Cocina looks for. Heena really wanted to open a concept for serving her style of traditional and not-so-traditional Gujarati cuisine, and the program helped her craft a 90-page business plan…for the truck.
Have you seen that truck around San Francisco? Nope, we didn’t think so, because it never ended up happening. Instead, she started “Rasoi,” a Ferry Building farmers' market vendor concept. Heena also held pop-ups at the likes of Jardinière and State Bird Provisions. At the latter, she served a dessert to chef and co-owner Stuart Brioza, who was beyond thrilled with his first taste, seemingly having a life-altering epiphany. Talk about the ultimate compliment and confidence booster for a shy, upstart cook like Heena.
Then it all happened so fast with the restaurateur Daniel Patterson after La Cocina connected the two and she was invited to have lunch with him at his restaurant, Alta, in the Minnesota Street Project. Yes, that Daniel Patterson, the chef known for high-end cooking at San Francisco fine dining stalwarts like the now-closed Elisabeth Daniel and Coi. Heena was skeptical and even admitted to us, “I googled him — who is Daniel Patterson?” Recently, Patterson has become instrumental in championing socioeconomic diversity by working with Restaurants Opportunities Center United and helping aspiring restaurateurs, like Heena, defeat the odds.
At the lunch, Patterson offered the Alta space to Heena. It swept her off her feet. She could cook and do what she does so well, and be helped in what she’s less experienced with. Now, two months since opening, Heena has even more respect for Patterson than before she went into business with him. Simply put — the system of passionate chef, La Cocina education and renowned chef mentor/business system is working.
To date, the biggest question from diners for Heena has been, “Where is the chicken tikka masala?”, pigeon-holing the most well-known Indian dish to Americans that isn’t even a traditional Indian dish. (Answer: not at this restaurant). Heena has also been shocked by how savvy her customers are, estimating about 90% have an open mind (and don’t care about the lack of tikka masala) and love her adorably different, somewhat quirky concept. She also is hugely surprised by how many Indian customers just keep coming and coming, often with big groups of non-Indian colleagues and friends.
Indeed, it has been quite the journey from Gujarat to the Dogpatch for Heena and Paresh. Their 29-year old daughter is studying for the bar exam and their 21-year old son is an aspiring journalist, studying at Vassar College in New York. Everyone chips in to help at Besharam, whether on the floor or from afar. Both kids help their mom with something that is definitely not one of her biggest strengths: social media. Meanwhile, at the restaurant, Paresh helps with the front-of-house and also assists on the wine and newly-launched cocktail program with Alta Group Beverage Director, Aaron Paul.
Paresh should also get lots of credit for allowing San Francisco to have the privilege of knowing what he’s known for decades — how talented a chef Heena is. Once, when she was doubting if a restaurant would ever happen, he assured her that “what you serve is basic but people are hungry for it.” He was very correct, though bleu cheese naan is definitely not basic. San Francisco was starving for the open-minded style of cooking that Heena brings to the table.
No, there are no burritos on the menu at Veronica Salazar’s restaurant inside Larkspur’s tony Marin Country Mart. Of course, that’s one of the first things a good percentage of her diners notice on an initial visit and ask about. For Salazar, it’s pretty simple why there are no burritos to be found at El Huarache Loco — burritos aren’t really something people eat in Mexico. “Find them at Walmart” is her advice if you want a burrito in Mexico City because they serve them in the frozen food aisle (though she can’t vouch for if they’re delicious at all).
However, diners will find a thrilling roster of Mexico City street food and home cooking staples at El Huarache Loco, beginning with the namesake huaraches. They are thin-pressed, oval-shaped masa “tortillas” that are often thought of as “sandal-shaped.” If you’re still having trouble, just picture a flattened tamale, minus the banana leaf and with the fillings on top of the masa, and you’re kind of on the right track. The huarache is a platform for all kinds of toppings from ham, bacon and chorizo to tender rib meat (“costilla”) to the must-try nopales salad (cactus!). There is a thin layer of black bean paste between the tortilla and the toppings, then crowning garnishes of a rustic-zesty red salsa, cilantro, onions, cheese and the all-important squiggles of cool crema. Yes, it’s all kind of crazy but really it’s just downright delicious. (The “loco” in the name, by the way, is because it’s a fun word and El Huarache Loco is a common restaurant name in Mexico.)
Trust us, you’ll be wishing every burrito place served huaraches after your first one from Salazar.
She has been cooking them each Saturday morning at the Alemany Farmers' Market (the “People’s Market”) since 2006, just a year after joining the La Cocina program. Since coming to the Bay Area in 1995 with her husband, she had been cooking food at home for friends, family and pretty much anyone who wanted a taste of the CDMX (Ciudad de Mexico, the name Mexico City is often referred to in Mexico). Salazar first heard about a kitchen for low-income women from a news story on Univision and was soon in touch with La Cocina thanks to one of her customers. Salazar also was involved with the now-shuttered Women’s Initiative for Self Employment (also known as ALAS), who helped her hatch the all-important business plan.
Fast-forward to 2012 and Salazar’s popularity at Alemany made her a favorite of critics and diners alike (count this writer as one who visited in the early days and became an enormous fan). A developer in Marin County was looking for a chef to run a Mexican restaurant in their new rustic, high-end shopping complex by the Larkspur Ferry Terminal. Salazar noted to us recently that it was a pretty “ugly, lonely looking place” at first. But, she believed in it. The commute wouldn’t be so bad (after all, from her home in San Francisco, it takes just as long to get to La Cocina as it does to drive to Larkspur) and the crowds would come just like at Alemany.
The risk clearly worked as El Huarache Loco became the first restaurant opened by a La Cocina alum. Salazar pays homage to her La Cocina roots with a 2011 picture of her in the incubator’s kitchen with three fellow chefs, all of whom have successful full-time concepts today.
Around the restaurant, she also has many distinct nods to her Mexico City home and her family — a family that has run a restaurant, Caldos Rivera, for more than 60 years in the heart of the chaotic city. Salazar told us that as a woman in Mexico, “To live, you have to learn how to cook.” These dishes have been with her forever. Beyond huaraches, the menu in Larkspur includes “antojitos” (CDMX specials and appetizers), like a delicate, curled huitlacoche-filled (dark black corn fungus) quesadilla that is nothing like the greasy, cheesy, flat Tex-Mex quesadillas you’ve surely tried. There are other unfamiliar names to most Bay Area diners like pambazos, sopes, gorditas and tostadas. Breakfast features huevos rancheros and chilaquiles. There are also more familiar tacos in myriad formats and fillings, along with daily specials and enchiladas that are again not recognizable to most diners in the audience. Salazar honors her mother in the chop-like house “Doña Luz” salad with a smorgasbord of great ingredients because her mother was so great at tying together surplus ingredients into a salad.
Salazar doesn’t cut any corners. She makes her own masa for the tortillas; fantastic and not-too-sweet agua frescas are housemade; and the guacamole is prepared from scratch, along with a half-dozen types of salsa. She has had to adapt a bit for the Marin audience. Remember, while there are lots of adventurous diners ready to eat anything, anywhere — there are also plenty of soccer moms and rushed ferry commuters stopping by. So, tripe-filled menudo quickly left the menu. There is no tongue amongst the taco meats. There is, however, alphabet soup on the kid’s menu.
Salazar has found a home in a place that is about as far a 180-degree spin from hectic Mexico City as you can get. Inside El Huacache Loco, there are giant handmade rancho-style chairs and lots of the customary singing and dancing skeletons from Dia de los Muertos celebrations that you might find in her home city. Then walk outside and you’ll see a pond with koi and turtles, lots of relaxed locals who just left yoga class, and you’ll certainly notice how the exterior of El Huarache Loco is the same as everything else in the charming shopping area (freshly painted, chic farmhouse-looking).
In bucolic Marin, Salazar is still trying to defeat the naysayers who claim that this isn’t “real Mexican food.” Quite simply, anyone can think what they want to think, but we know that they’re wrong. Salazar definitely knows that they’re wrong because she is one of the Bay Area’s great ambassadors of the cuisine from one of the world’s grandest and most culturally enriching cities.
“Excuse me! I hate to interrupt, but may I just say that she makes THE best fried chicken I have ever had.”
A few seconds later, both the glowing customer and Fernay McPherson, the Chef-Owner of Minnie Bell’s Soul Movement, lightheartedly assure this food writer that this moment wasn’t staged for our interview. He genuinely feels that this crispy, succulent, rosemary-flecked plate of fried chicken was the greatest that he had ever encountered, even surpassing his longtime prior gold standard — of course, his own recipe.
As an hour goes by with McPherson, nobody else stops the interview other than a coworker asking a fryer question or her 13-year old son, Eric, stopping by because his summer job right now is working for his mom’s Emeryville Public Market kiosk four-days-a-week (Eric’s mom informs us that his favorite part of the job is counting the hours he’s worked and charging those hours).
But, once McPherson is back at her post in the tiny Minnie Bell’s space, roving between the cash register, the two fryers, the refrigerator full of Kool-Aid (a LOT of freshly-mixed, not exactly all-natural Kool-Aid), and the back’s prep areas, she’s receiving constant praise from happy customers of all ages and backgrounds. Maybe it’s the fact that the kiosk is in an isolated corner of a Public Market with constant construction? Maybe it’s McPherson’s ever-present upbeat charm? Maybe it’s because they’re all drinking the Minnie Bell’s Kool-Aid? Maybe…it’s the rosemary?
Yes, the rosemary fried chicken. It’s everything that a legendary fried chicken should be with a crunchy, ready-to-shatter crust that is gleefully free of grease, and meat that is as juicy as a ripe summer peach, whether you’re munching on drumstick, wing, breast or thigh. Rosemary has been the recipe’s staple since her early adult cooking days when she had rosemary on hand and sampled with it. Her recipe has no seasoning nor any buttermilk or a second dredging of batter. McPherson’s key move is to give the chicken a rosemary-hot sauce marinade for 24 hours or more. Then she fries the chicken and rosemary in clean oil (the kiosk closes between lunch and dinner for a labor-intensive oil switch-out).
With all of this chicken talk, Minnie Bell’s is by no means a one-hit wonder. The menu sticks to roughly a half-dozen supporting cast members, all of whom are vegetarian (no bacon, no lard). Well, the three-cheese mac & cheese with Parmesan, fontina and cheddar isn’t exactly a light selection, nor is the sweeter, fluffier-style of cornbread that McPherson makes with lots of brown butter. However, the smoky vegan red rice and beans and the red chili-accented braised greens are miles ahead of their peers in flavor complexity and a clean brightness that is never associated with them.
McPherson’s family is originally from New Mexico and Texas, and came to California as part of the mid-century Great Migration, a period when the Fillmore was booming as the “Harlem of the West.” A generation later, McPherson has called the Fillmore “home” for all but a couple years when she attended cooking school in Sacramento. Sadly, she has witnessed that neighborhood boom steadily fade. She’s hoping that one day Minnie Bell’s can play a part in bringing back that vibrant heyday for the corridor.
At first, her role in the kitchen for the family was to grate cheese for mac ‘n’ cheese, an activity that she admittedly “dreaded.” The first recipe she had to master was a Betty Crocker Dinette Cake. She gradually learned how to cook her family’s soul food recipes from her late grandmother Lillie Bell and her great aunt Minnie (now 85 years old). Their impact on her personal and professional life years later are why both are the namesakes of Minnie Bell’s and, frankly, why she was compelled to become a chef.
The concept launched as a mobile catering company, hence the Soul “Movement.” She joined La Cocina in 2011 and participated in the Fillmore Mobile Food Vendor and Artisan Marketplace program, a small business course that La Cocina taught with Urban Solutions, a nonprofit economic development organization. “Small businesses are what make the world go around,” McPherson tells us. Sadly, seven years later, the city is still “sleeping on the fact that we’re small businesses.”
During her time with La Cocina, Minnie Bell’s became increasingly in demand for catering and pop-ups, with the most notable of the latter being a substantial run at Wing Wings in the Lower Haight. Still, the permanent restaurant just wouldn’t come, but luckily a yearlong lease in the Emeryville Public Market emerged after fellow La Cocina alum Nyum Bai left.
The Fillmore is having huge dining growth, started by the blockbuster State Bird Provisions, and recently followed by the likes of Avery, Wise Sons and Merchant Roots. All are delicious and small (ish) businesses — and all are not black-owned. For McPherson, the scene on Fillmore is “bittersweet” because these are very worthy and considerate additions to the neighborhood, but “it’s a mystery” to her and “an eyesore for the community” how there are still so many prominently vacant storefronts in the corridor. Real estate developers keep holding out for someone to pay bigger and bigger bucks. It’s about the money. It’s all about the money. In the meantime, the potentially vibrant culture and significant foot traffic is kept away, other than the nightly State Bird Provisions line.
Soon, McPherson will get her permanent restaurant because she is an immensely gifted chef with the fervently devoted following that she deserves like that raving diner who paused our interview. Those fans will follow Minnie Bell’s wherever its movement goes.
Taste the steamed fish soufflé called “amok” and dip some exquisitely trimmed cucumbers into “prahok,” a homey and spicy ground pork dip, and you’ll simultaneously experience profound beauty and pain through a cuisine’s powerful story.
There is so much joy in Cambodian cooking, whether starting with a banana blossom, cabbage and sweet basil “ngoum banana salad” or digging into the slightly sweet, profoundly earthy and balanced “kuy teav Phnom Penh” noodles in a seven-hour pork broth that tastes much more like a complex craft cocktail at Trick Dog than the rugged tonkotsu ramen broth you would be expecting. Along with the food, there is tremendous beauty in the stunning natural setting and rich culture of Cambodia, one that is not very well known to the Bay Area audience. As Nite Yun, the chef-owner of Oakland’s five-month old restaurant, Nyum Bai, unfortunately points out — everyone seems to know about Angkor Wat’s temples and the genocide, and that’s about it for Cambodia. She’s trying to change that one guest at a time.
Nite’s earliest memories from her youth are eating rice with her hands on the floor of her family’s apartment in Stockton while mid-century Khmer rock and roll music played in the background. That was a common portrait of her life growing up in the Central Valley town, where she constantly grappled with the question of identity that countless immigrants in this country think about. Her life was nothing similar to her friends in high school — they probably didn’t even know where Cambodia was and definitely didn’t eat rice with their hands. On the flip side, she wasn’t really part of the Americana culture of eating hamburgers and watching TV shows all the time. Nite just focused on school and family, spending most of her time at home with her parents and two brothers (she’s the middle child).
She doesn’t have memories of before Stockton.
Nite’s parents dodged land mines, worked in labor camps and managed to flee the horrific genocide during the Khmer Rouge’s reign of terror in Cambodia during the late 1970s. Her parents spent five years in a refugee camp in Thailand where Nite was born. The family was sponsored by a church group in Texas and immigrated to the U.S. before quickly relocating to Stockton because of the large Cambodian expat community there.
Nite didn’t fully understand the scope of the genocide or why her parents didn’t open up much about their past until well into her youth. She acknowledges now that they struggled with a form of PTSD and that is a reason that she learned very little about her mysterious homeland of Cambodia until she grew older.
Trips back to Cambodia in her early adult years helped Nite better understand her heritage and planted the idea of Nyum Bai in her mind. At first, she spent four years at SF State in the nursing program but knew that wasn’t for her, telling us, “How could I be a nurse if I didn’t care? It was all compounded. Everything that was in the hospital I was so unhappy about, like learning about it was one thing, but actually working in the hospital, wearing scrubs [and] the lighting, the smells and everything, it was like, ‘Get me out of here!’”
It was on her third trip back to Cambodia, while eating a bowl of soup in a market, that she realized she should start her own food business. Through Nyum Bai, Nite says, she could open up her country by “sharing Cambodia [and] teaching people about Cambodia through the cuisine, but also a way for people to reunite with their roots.”
She had no idea how this was going to actually be a business. She didn’t have any formal culinary training other than cooking extensively with her mom and then on her own at college when she started missing her mom’s recipes. Though she lacked the business plan, she definitely didn’t lack what she describes as “purpose.” Nite set about on her own doing recipe testing and held private dinners at her home. A visit to the 2009 La Cocina Street Food Festival convinced her to reach out to the organization but she didn’t feel ready to truly be an entrepreneur. She incorrectly doubted herself. After all, she even knew that one of her mom’s frequent sayings, “Nyum Bai,” (a Cambodian phrase for “Eat rice” or “Let’s eat!”) should be the name of this future concept. Instead of having a formal interview, Nite was asked to cater a board meeting for La Cocina and that become an informal interview — a “trick” she admits — and Nite joined in 2014. Nyum Bai found a stall in the Emeryville Public Market in early 2017 (now occupied by Minnie Bell’s) and that expansion made the entire Bay Area realize that Cambodian food should be, and thankfully now is, on the map of vital cuisines to sample and learn more about.
Emeryville gave her lessons that she badly needed for achieving that grander dream — her own spot. Some of the challenges she encountered and had to get past included “learning how to be a leader, scaling up recipes, sharing my stories and opening up to strangers.” It didn’t take long for the opportunity of a permanent Oakland spot to appear.
The owner of the Fruitvale, Oakland burgers and craft beers spot, The Half Orange, was connected to La Cocina and informed the organization that he was going to be closing the business. Around the same time, Nite’s yearlong lease for Emeryville was winding down. It was a no-brainer match for Nyum Bai and Fruitvale (though her commute from West Oakland has gone from five minutes to fifteen minutes!).
The Half Orange’s narrow space, open kitchen and charming patio area, plus Fruitvale’s diversity and constant energy just felt like Nyum Bai’s right home. The dining room has a striking pink neon and aquatic blue slatted fixture, cheery bursts of white and bright colored paints, and Khmer rock and roll albums on the walls. The outside patio is festive and bustling, feeling like it could be a roadside market with its narrow bench seating, but is also singularly “Oakland” via the neighboring market’s mariachi music and piñatas.
The extensive dinner menu has three sections: starters like grilled beef skewers with a honey and “kroeung” (a Cambodian spice paste) dipping sauce, or taro, pork and glass noodle-filled crispy rolls; a trio of noodles dishes under their own heading; and “With Rice” dishes ranging from crispy catfish topped with green mango salad to the southern Khmer sweet and peppery pork belly stew called “koh.” Weekday lunch is counter-service and an abbreviated menu of noodles, rice plates, snacks and some intriguing salad and sandwich creations (new fried chicken sandwich alert!).
Fruitvale has been unpredictable in the early going for business because foot traffic can be a challenge (it’s a block removed from the BART station) and there isn’t the natural pull of a built-in residential area. Nite has really enjoyed seeing the mix of travelers going to Cambodia or those who recently visited, the countless adventurous Bay Area diners always on the lookout for learning about global cuisines, and how the region’s Cambodian population has certainly embraced her concept.
Nyum Bai is a deeply personal restaurant that reaches back to before Nite was born. You can feel that pain from her country’s past but the joy in the country’s resilience since such unspeakable tragedy. She wanted to provide “a space for the old and the new generation of Cambodians to come together and start healing” and has accomplished that.
“If you ever feel like giving up,” Nite says, “just remind yourself why you started the business in the first place.” Words can’t describe what her parents and her homeland went through. At least there is the warmth and beauty of food to connect generations and comfort each other.
Oakland doesn’t have a Tony Bennett-style flowery ballad nor does it boast iconic and widely photographed pyramids, cable cars and curvy, steep, garden-decorated streets. That’s not Oakland. You don’t leave your heart in The Town; you give your heart to it.
That has been the case for Reem Assil, the Chef-Owner of Reem’s in Fruitvale and Chef-Partner with Dyafa in Jack London Square, since she moved to Oakland. Growing up in the small Arab community just outside Boston and attending nearby Tufts University, Massachusetts never felt like a place meant for her, for reasons well beyond the predictably harsh winters. Oakland finally felt like “home” with its diversity, its energy and its sense of community.
Reem’s mother is Palestinian and her father is Syrian. The two met after both relocated to Beirut before coming to the United States together. All through her youth, Reem felt like a “stranger in a strange land,” trying to truly figure out her identity. She definitely didn’t think that identity was going to be as a chef — she actually wanted to be an actress and then shifted towards social justice and “trying to change the world” while at Tufts.
When Reem moved to the Bay Area in 2005 because she “was over Boston” and could crash on her uncle’s couch in Daly City, she ended up working at non-profits and as a community organizer in Oakland for a range of causes and issues from airport labor to urban development policies. It was on a trip in 2010 (just before the Arab Spring) to Lebanon and Syria when the idea for Reem’s was largely created after she absolutely adored the many street corner bakeries in Beirut and Damascus. She was struck not just by how delicious the pastries were, but also how these omnipresent bakeries were sort of like sanctuaries in a city full of constant turmoil — a situation not unlike Oakland, except her new home didn’t have those much-needed communal gathering spots.
So, Reem signed up for baking and pastry classes at Laney College in Oakland, but left after six months to join the well-known, worker-owned Arizmendi Bakery and Pizzeria in Emeryville. After those formative days, there was no doubt where Reem’s career was heading. She was connected to La Cocina in 2014 through the Women’s Initiative Center and initially wanted to have a wood-fired oven attached to a truck à la Del Popolo to cook her signature item, mana’eesh (puffy pita-like flatbreads). However, she points out that “out of practicality and learning how to run a food business, that concept changed.” Plus, her mom (incorrectly) had doubts about whether Americans would even like mana’eesh. The Reem’s concept pop-ups began first at the Mission Community Market and shortly thereafter she was a mega-hit at several farmers' markets, including the Ferry Building. Her production for the markets and catering was bursting at the seams of La Cocina. She essentially had to go.
With fortuitous timing, Reem was connected to a former Chinese fast food restaurant space in busy Fruitvale Village as her production was surging. It was the perfect spot geographically and physically for Reem’s brick-and-mortar debut, complete with plenty of baking and mana'eesh oven space.
The bakery/café has become a fixture for a diverse range of customers, heavy on families in the daytime and commuters in the evening. They come together to enjoy Reem’s “unapologetically Arab street food” with “California love.” That means saj wraps (flatbreads cooked on a dome-shaped griddle) and oven-baked mana’eesh topped with anything from za’atar made in Jordan to avocado to falafel to sujuk (a beef sausage) to soft-yolk farm fresh eggs. Guests will also find various baked goods, fattoush, spreads, and handheld “mu’ajinaat” pastries in flavors like lamb, pomegranate and pine nut.
The bakery took years to plan. The second restaurant took weeks.
Reem and the chef-restaurateur Daniel Patterson have both long been involved with Restaurants Opportunities Center United, an organization devoted to improving working conditions, wages and diversity in restaurant labor. A few months ago, Patterson informed Reem that his Jack London Square restaurant Haven was going to pivot concepts. She pitched to Patterson the idea of Dyafa, a hipper, more ambitious take on Arab cuisine concept named for “hospitality.” Quickly, Dyafa came to fruition and opened in April 2018, just a month after her son Zain was born. Talk about a busy spring and current summer for Reem.
Dyafa is very much “of the moment,” part of a nationwide trend of chic and eclectic Middle Eastern fine dining restaurants. At lunch and dinner, diners at Dyafa usually start with an order of those same mezze spreads as at Reem’s, highlighted by a smoky baba ghanoush that is so smoky that you’d swear it has an ounce of mezcal in it. Lunch tends to be more simpler fare, led by saj wraps that might be the “shish tawook” filled with spicy chicken kebab or turmeric-spiced cauliflower, eggplant and feta cheese in the “Steph Curry.” The latter is obviously an Oakland must-order for the name alone. Dinner sports a much more extensive selection of cold mezze and hot mezze, plus large plates like sumac-spiced chicken confit and braised lamb shank with garlic yogurt.
The two restaurants reside in two complete opposite worlds view-wise. Dyafa looks at the Oakland Estuary’s leisurely boats and tourist scene, while Reem’s 40-seat dining room and vast patio gazes at the frenetic area around Fruitvale BART. Only Dyafa, though, has a popular bar with excellent Arab-leaning cocktails from Alta Group Beverage Director Aaron Paul that seem to be popular even at noon on a weekday, with witty names to boot like To Yaffa With Love (vodka, cara cara orange, curaçao, Grand Poppy liqueur).
Dyafa also sports a sleek Middle East-meets-California nature design with tree roots dangling from exposed rafters and mosaic tiles on the floor. Reem’s is definitely not trying to be anything hip or lounge-like. Instead, the space is homey and charming as both a meal-gathering place and weekday freelance workforce office. It boasts bright colors (think light green, pink, yellow); Arabic script on the walls including the names of Kickstarter donors; a bakery case, open kitchen and ordering counter; and a mural of Rasmea Odeh and Oscar Grant (the unarmed black man killed at Fruitvale BART in 2009).
Ah, the mural. Much has been written about the controversy of the mural and Eater SF’s Andrew Dalton has a thorough breakdown of the situation last summer when “J., the Jewish News of California,” featured an op-ed denouncing the artwork’s meaning and a large controversy emerged.
In the aftermath, there were death threats, a cascade of threatening Yelp reviews (mostly from non-diners), protesters, a need for Oakland police to be stationed outside, and even a star turn in, of all places, Breitbart.
That all was definitely not in the business plan for a place that encourages to “#Feelthewarmth” and has a vision to “build strong, resilient community” in the power of food.
The mural is important to Reem because she sees Odeh, a Palestinian, as a “symbol of unfairness in immigration.” Odeh was convicted in 1969 of being involved in a supermarket bombing that killed two Israeli students in Jerusalem. After a decade in jail, she was freed in a prisoner exchange with the Palestinians and immigrated to the U.S. in the 1990s. She was instrumental in organizing the massive Women’s Marches of January 2017, but, because officials claimed that her conviction from 1969 was never reported to U.S. officials, Odeh was deported back to her homeland of Jordan last fall.
Reem continually seeks the healthy discussion that the topic badly needs, telling us “a lot of it wasn’t even about the mural. It was the fact that I was Palestinian and Arab.” She admits, “Naturally, that could’ve broken me down and forced me to be quiet, which, at the beginning I was afraid and didn’t know how to maneuver.” However, “the community came through ten times as much than the other side, like ‘we have your back.’ It created an opportunity for me to educate folks about who Rasmea is and why she’s important. And who Oscar Grant is and why the symbol of him on my wall is important.”
Race, religion, police actions, the question of Israel and Palestine, immigration — these are of course complex and touchy subjects, no doubt egged on by the current administration as Reem is quick to point out. Regardless of mural opinions, we all can agree that disrespectful Yelp reviews don’t help anything and that Reem’s model of worker fairness and community togetherness is a model that can — and should — defeat religious and political barriers.
At La Cocina, Reem realized that, yes, she wanted a small bakery but also be to big picture-minded. Remember “saving the world” at Tufts? She’s working at it. Reem and her peers are already making progress right at home in Fruitvale with a food and drink “ecosystem” between the bakery and neighbors Ale Industries and Red Bay Coffee (you can get both at Reem’s). She is hoping to make her own za’atar blend by hiring a group of refugees in the Bay Area to do the work. Who knows what else is on the horizon?
“So much of my restaurants are an homage to Oakland,” Reem acknowledges. Whether you’re dining at Reem’s restaurants in Fruitvale or Jack London Square, you know that you’re at a place trying to lift up its community and you’re very much in Oakland.