Bay Area restaurant breaking barriers, offers understanding of Arab American culture

Reem Assil may be the award-winning chef of Reem's California in San Francisco's Mission District and the bakery in Oakland's Fruitvale neighborhood. But her main goal is to offer at least a glimpse into her Arab-American culture through good food.

She seeks to, "break down barriers of understanding. Reem's is really an educational space," says Assil.

Assil, who is part Palestinian and part Syrian, got the idea to introduce Arab food to the general Bay Area more than 10 years ago after a trip to Syria with her father.

"The thing that really really struck me was how Arabs showed their hospitality through food. Through bread. The bread is kind of the lifeline of Arab culture and history. I just fell in love with the bakeries there," she said.

Assil spent years perfecting her culinary craft and in 2017 opened the bakery and restaurant in Oakland. It became a hit.

"It was everything I could have asked for."

But some things she didn't ask for.

"People calling and saying we hope your bakery blows up. Go back to wherever you terrorist," she said.

But such calls died down, the bakery thrived and Assil opened a second spot in San Francisco in 2019.

Then the pandemic struck. Sales dropped by 80%.

"Fruitvale became a ghost town. Nobody was riding BART. We were on a transit line. The bulk of our customers were workers in the office buildings of non-profits. All that just disappeared."

Assil now uses the Oakland location as a commissary kitchen making food to sell at farmers markets and pop-up food stands and catering. She is also feeding the hungry, helping contribute some 80,000 meals during the pandemic.

Assil feels she has fulfilled her mission of tearing down racial and ethnic stereotypes about Arabs and bringing a better understanding of her heritage.

"We need to be recognized. We need to have a voice. And I think people are starting to do that. And celebrate it," she said.