To understand the significance of Reem’s opening its new bakery in the Mission District, as it did quietly this morning, you have to start with its predecessor at 2901 Mission Street: Mission Pie was, of course, a neighborhood staple for more than a dozen years — a place that, yes, served high-quality baked goods, but was also the kind of place where you could drop in at almost any time of day or night to have a cup of coffee or a glass of wine, a place that always seemed to hosting some community event or another. When it closed this past fall, its customers were devastated.
What better spot to fill that void, though, than Reem’s, the Oakland-based bakery that introduced the Bay Area to the pleasures of mana’eesh (Arab flatbreads) and its own particular brand of Arab hospitality? The new Reem’s in the Mission is many things — a bright and airy cafe space; the city’s first proper Arab bakery; and, probably for many Arab Americans and fans of chef Reem Assil’s cooking, a destination restaurant. More than anything, though, Assil wants the restaurant to be what Mission Pie was: a welcoming neighborhood space.
“We want to bring some of that fun experience of what it feels like to eat in the Arab world, and to feel that community vibe,” Assil says.
Of course, the biggest selling point might still be the food itself. Fans of the original Reem’s in the Fruitvale will find many of their old favorites here — the fresh-baked mana’eesh with assorted toppings, and the colorful, bountiful salads and dips.
The splashiest menu addition is an entire section of ka’ik — sandwiches made with loop-shaped sesame bread. These came about as a necessary adaptation when Assil wasn’t able to install the domed griddle, or saj, that she normally uses to make the wraps that Reem’s is best known for. But Assil says those sesame bread loops, crusty and fragrant when freshly baked, turned out to be the perfect sandwich vehicle in their own right. The most basic version, the Laughing Cow, is based on her mother’s favorite dish growing up: Laughing Cow cheese (or, in this case, Picon) spread on hot bread, then topped with chiles.
More elaborate versions include La Gringa, which Assil says is her nod to the Bay Area’s current birria craze: slow-cooked lamb and Oaxacan cheese, served with consomé on the side so that customers can dunk the entire sandwich, French Dip-like. And then, most decadent of all, there’s the Lubnaniya, a carb-on-carb sandwich that comes with a thick slice of knafeh — the shredded phyllo and cheese dessert — inside. The whole thing comes oozing with sweet syrup, so it comes wrapped in parchment paper to help contain the mess. Assil expects it to be a particularly big hit when she launches brunch.
One of Assil’s big goals with the Mission restaurant is to offer a more robust selection of Arab pastries, including that knafeh, which will be cut to order from a big tray as is traditionally done in Lebanon. Other items Assil will slowly roll out in the coming weeks include a cinnamon-and-walnut laminated pastry she simply describes as “babka and baklava have a baby.” She’ll offer scones with a date-based, Middle Eastern flavor profile; the turmeric tea cake known as sfoof; and two different kinds of baklava. And Assil says she eventually wants to serve a pie of some sort, as a nod to her predecessor in the space.
Also on the menu: a full coffee and espresso program (featuring special drinks like a cardamom latte and beans from Grand Coffee, a Palestinian-owned roaster in San Francisco), a small selection of beer and wine on tap — including wines from Lebanon, Turkey, and Georgia. (“The hipsters love the Georgian wines,” Assil says.)
The space itself is bright with splashes of color everywhere. There’s a Instagram-friendly neon “Feel the Warmth” sign behind the counter, and there are three colorful murals on another wall, all centered on a motif of keys. The art has a political message: For Palestinians, Assil explains, keys represent the right to return to their homeland, and she believes they’re a poignant symbol here in the Bay Area, too, during this time when children have been locked in cages, and immigrant rights are such a crucial issue.
The restaurant’s other prominent design feature is its curved wooden banquettes, made from a single cedar tree by La Cocina grad Binta Ayofemi’s apprentice-focused wood furniture company, Guild. Even the choice of wood was a conscious one: The cedar tree is indigenous to the Middle East. Right now the restaurant seats about 36, but Assil says she’s applying for a permit to add sidewalk seating too.
The chef acknowledges that it’s a particularly stressful time to be opening a new restaurant, with the barrage of coronavirus news and the sense that many diners just aren’t really eating out. Even at Reem’s, catering business has already taken a big hit. Still, the chef says she feels hopeful: “Because we’re a neighborhood space, a sanctuary space,” she says, “I have to believe that people are really hungry for that space to be open.”
For now Reem’s is open weekdays from 9 a.m. to 2 p.m. In a couple of weeks it will expand its hours to include weekend brunch and, eventually, dinner hours. See the full opening lunch menu below: