A new Palestinian-influenced pop-up restaurant from a trio of Chicago service industry members debuts for dine-in and takeout Wednesday inside a Wicker Park bar. Yamma, an affectionate phrase for “my mother” in Arabic, offers “health-conscious, flavorful, allergen-sensitive Mediterranean food” though the lens of Ruba Hassan’s desire to highlight her family’s culinary culture. She and her partners have signed on for a year-long stint at Pint, 1547 N. Milwaukee Avenue.
Pint, with its red phone booths that are familiar in the UK, may not lend itself naturally to Middle Eastern food, but Hassan and company will give it a go. At first Hassan reached out to ghost kitchens, but eventually connected with Pint owner Kevin O’Donnell who was already looking for a new direction of his kitchen. Pint was founded in 2004.
Salads abound in various sizes like tabbouleh (parsley, cracked bulgar wheat) and a chickpea and kale caesar (roasted chickpeas, onion, cucumber, sun-dried tomato). Patrons will also find wraps with traditional Arabic shrak bread or bowls with rice vermicelli or maftoul (Palestinian wheat couscous) — in varieties like Shish Tawook (grilled and spiced chicken, tahini, toum, whipped feta, sumac onions, romaine) and Lamb Meshwi (khyar bi laban, pickled turnips, sumac onions, tahini).
Hassan is reluctant to serve an all-vegetarian menu; she says it would be a tough sell for many Arab families, so there are meat and fish options. For the most part, though, she and Hubbard want to draw attention to healthy replacements like mushrooms, which maintain a meaty essence without veering into factory-made alternatives like Impossible and Beyond meat replacements. They also plan to soon introduce a weekly meal service for vegetarians and omnivores.
While Hassan’s heritage provides inspiration, executive chef Tierra Hubbard (Chef’s Special Cocktail Bar) will execute her vision. They’re joined by director of operations Katie Poplawski to launch with a menu of mezze-style starters and snacks such as a spicy muhammara dip (flame-roasted red pepper, walnuts, pomegranate molasses) and lentil fritters with creamy harissa.
“I come from a Palestinian background and food is a very important part of our culture, especially as women,” says Hassan, who was born and raised in Chicago’s suburbs. “Growing up, I had to reclaim my own culture, with all the growing pains of being very American and having to adapt. During that process I birthed Yamma, I guess.”
The group hope that Yamma’s menu will help novices gain a better understanding of Palestinian food. The cuisine is usually grouped with Middle Eastern cuisines, Hassan says, but is probably closer to what Americans think of as Mediterranean food with influences from Greece, Egypt, and Morocco. It’s important for her to make explicit the relationship between the menu and her heritage as part of a larger mission to educate others about Palestinian culture, which she feels is too often reduced to news briefs about violence in the Middle East.
“It was very striking to me growing up — [Palestinian] restaurant owners would lie about their identity and say they were Jordanian or Lebanese. Retaining the word Palestinian matters, it’s under attack more-so literally today... It’s important to honor the land, my mother’s — and our ancestors’ — long, hard hours in the kitchen to make this food possible.”
The Chicago-area’s Palestinian population centers in South Suburban Bridgeview, about 15 miles southwest of the Loop. They are about 85,000 Palestinians in the area, and there’s a stretch of Bridgeview known as Little Palestine. Notable restaurants include Al Bawadi Grill. Hassan also referenced a location of chain Naf Naf Grill in Uptown as an influence.
While keying on Palestinian cooking, Yamma adds to a solid group of Middle Eastern options in the area which include Taxim, Istanbul Cafe, IDOF, Sultan’s Market, Rumi Middle Eastern Grill, and Falafel & Grill.
- ‘Palestine Is Not Just Geography, It’s How We Cook and Eat and Talk’ [Eater]