By now, you are probably familiar with the story of Reem’s.
Reem Assil worked for years as a community organizer in the Bay Area. In 2010, she visited Syria and Lebanon, where the idea of starting her own social justice-oriented Arab bakery came to light. For Assil, the daughter of a Palestinian refugee and Syrian immigrant, the career switch would be personally rewarding but also continue her efforts to enact social change. She dreamt of a place where marginalized folks would feel at home, where people who often face challenges entering the workforce could find jobs that pay a living wage.
That concept eventually turned into Reem’s, first as a popular farmers’ market stand and, in May, as a full-fledged brick-and-mortar in the Fruitvale district. Before the bakery even opened, the San Francisco Chronicle named Assil a “Rising Star Chef,” an annual designation for emerging culinary leaders in the Bay Area. The national press, including Bon Appétit and The New York Times, followed with sparkling praise. It’s the rare combination of inspiring backstory, social consciousness, and triumphant eats that makes Reem’s irresistible.
The space certainly doesn’t hurt, either. It’s warm and inviting, with big windows and a staff that defines friendliness. Amidst bold teal, hot pink, and unapologetic yellow, you’ll spot welcoming words written in English, Arabic, and Spanish — a sign of the community-minded hospitality at Reem’s. There are toys for kids, activist-minded books on display, and a large mural of Rasmea Odeh that you’ve probably read about. While Assil views Odeh as an inspiring Palestinian activist, the controversial depiction drew many protests earlier this year.
Things have certainly calmed down. By day, Reem’s functions primarily as a bakery and even more so as a purveyor of manna’eesh (singular: man’oushe). These soft, pillowy-yet-crisp flatbreads are popular on the streets of Syria, Jordan, Palestine, and Lebanon, and they’re divine at Reem’s. Assil and her crew cook up the dough on the traditional domed griddle called a saj — a process you watch with awe while you’re in line to order.
No matter the time of day, you can order a man’oushe topped with za’atar (a spice blend of wild thyme, sesame seeds, and sumac) or akkawi cheese. There are no wrong decisions here. Both options pack tons of flavor, so it only depends on if you’re in the mood for a zingy-herbaceous-savory situation or a salty-briny one. You can add more toppings, too, such as sliced avocado, tangy labneh, a mix of seasonal vegetables, or spicy beef sausage. I haven’t tried anything on one of Reem’s manna’eesh that I didn’t love.
A subtle variation that’s absolutely worth investigating is the lahm-bi-ajeen, a thinner and crispier flatbread topped with ground beef. Yogurt and lemon juice keep it bright and dynamic.
Reem’s also whips up a few Arab pastries, including a few hearty, bready turnovers called mu’ajinaat. My favorite was filled with more of that akkawai cheese and nigella seeds. On the sweets side, I loved the sfoof, a Lebanese tea cake with a pleasing grit from semolina flour and a delicate, citrus-turmeric flavor.
If you’re a fan of the Reem’s farmers’ market stand, then you’re already familiar with manna’eesh and the same flatbreads in wrap form, stuffed with egg, goat cheese, and red pepper sauce in the morning or mozzarella, sausage, and tomatoes in the afternoon. Those favorites all carry over to the brick-and-mortar, but there are some new offerings as well, such as shakshuka, which you can only eat in-house. Shakshuka isn’t exactly an unusual find in the East Bay these days, but Reem’s’ version tastes sweeter and smokier thanks to heavy doses of roasted red peppers, caraway, and cumin. Sprinkles of goat cheese, perfectly runny eggs, and steaming-hot triangles of flatbread complete the meal.
And in October, Reem’s started offering dinner with full table service — a move placing it more firmly into restaurant territory than mere bakery. So far, dinner only takes place Thursdays and Fridays — and the kitchen closes at an early 8 p.m. — but Assil said she plans to extend dinner service to Tuesday and Wednesday starting next year and potentially stay open later as well. With just a few tables and a leisurely atmosphere, it can take a while to snag a seat — if you have a large-ish group, calling ahead would be wise.
The menu is short and changes every week, though some staples remain. There’s always the sweet-savory Musakhan Flatbread, a ramped-up version of the popular Pali-Cali lunch wrap. Served open-face like a crisp pizza, the soft, sumac-braised chicken mingles with a jammy caramelized onion purée and gets finished with fresh arugula, pomegranate seeds, and nuts. It’s a winner, as is the lamb burger, which Assil makes Arab-style by grating onions and spices directly into the ground meat. While lamb burgers too often arrive dry, the Reem’s burger was cooked just right — the soft house-made bun, Manchego cheese, and pickled red onions all accentuated the lamb well. I couldn’t get enough of the side of botata harra fries, hit with garlic, Aleppo pepper, and cilantro and dipped in harissa yogurt.
On my evening visit, there was also a starter of impossibly crispy, deep-fried Brussels sprouts drizzled with a tahini-garlic sauce, as well as a lovely, balanced salad composed of arugula, pomelo, feta, and pistachios with surprising hints of tarragon. The rotating entrée that night, a freekeh stew, could have been ordered meaty with chicken or vegan with mushrooms. I went vegan and met perfectly cooked wild mushrooms and soothing wafts of garlic, ginger, and lemon. It went nicely with a local beer on tap, although there are intriguing wines available from Palestine and Lebanon as well.
Do finish with a slice of pistachio-rose pound cake — buttery and subtly floral — topped with macerated berries, tangy labneh ice cream, and honey. And perhaps take some sfoof for the road, if there’s any left. Chances are, you’ll return sooner than you think. Reem’s might have you contemplating the links between bread, politics, and cultural identity late at night — at the very least, Assil’s man’oushe will probably follow you in your dreams.
3301 E 12th St., Suite 133, Oakland
Hours: Tue.–Wed. 8 a.m.–3 p.m., Thu.–Fri. 8 a.m.–8 p.m., Sat. 9 a.m.–3 p.m.
Cash, all major credit cards
Za’atar man’oushe … $5
Lahm-bi-ajeen … $6
Shakshuka … $12
Musakhan Flatbread … $14
Lamb burger … $16