Chicago

First Look: Meet Yamma, the Veggie-Centric Palestinian Gem Taking Wicker Park by Storm

It's all that and a bag of za'atar fries.

Photo courtesy of Yamma
Photo courtesy of Yamma
Photo courtesy of Yamma

Make your way down the once again bustling Milwaukee Avenue strip in the heart of Wicker Park and you’ll encounter a barrage of businesses catering to folks from all walks of life-artisanal ice cream parlors touting flavors like frosé sorbet, vape shops peddling CBD tinctures, DJ-fueled clubs with brunchers spilling onto the sidewalk, hipster coffee shops and used book stores that both somehow smell like 1996, an Urban Outfitters rubbing elbows with a flashy sneakerhead destination and dusty vintage denim purveyors. It’s a veritable hodgepodge of cultures, ages, classes, races, ethnicities, sexual orientations, interests. You name it, you’ll probably find it along Milwaukee. And no single business embodies the neighborhood’s melting pot status more than Yamma, innovative pop-up-style concept backed by three ambitious hospitality pros peddling vegetarian-focused Palestinian fare from inside a classically outfitted Irish pub.

“Yeah, they’re confused,” admits Yamma’s director of operations Katie Poplawski, referencing the first reaction patrons express upon seeing lentil fritters and whipped feta dip top the new menu at Pint, a longstanding neighborhood bar festooned with the requisite Irish flags, Guinness drafts, and old-school British phone booth perched out front. “But once people eat, they’re happy. I think that it takes a little time for them to understand what’s going on.”

Photo courtesy of Yamma
Photo courtesy of Yamma
Photo courtesy of Yamma

What’s going on is a new type of business model, one where existing restaurants invite cheffy startups to take over their kitchens in an attempt to hone their culinary chops and mix things up for the regular customers while also generating revenue streams for both enterprises. It’s equal parts restaurant incubator and pandemic-spurred ingenuity, forming a thoughtful new pathway for an industry that’s been hit so hard over the past 15 months. 

“We knew what we wanted the food to be, but we also knew a full service restaurant probably wasn’t going to be a reasonable starting point given our budget,” Poplawski continues. “Quarantine was a huge part of it-when you’re in the industry, you don’t have a lot of time to sit back and think because you’re just constantly working. So we looked around at ghost kitchens online and then we found Pint, and they wanted to do something totally different, to explore different concepts in their kitchen. It’s worked out really well for us.”

Photo courtesy of Yamma
Photo courtesy of Yamma
Photo courtesy of Yamma

The “us” in question also includes Chicagoland natives Ruba Hassan and Tierra Hubbard. They met years ago while working in an area restaurant before Hubbard and Poplawski joined lauded Chinese-American cocktail bar Chef’s Special. And while their backgrounds differ, the talented trio shares an undying passion for all things food-and each other.

“I’ve had this concept running in my brain for maybe 10 years, but never found the people that I actually thought I would be able to look at every day in the face and not want to kill,” laughs Hassan. “They’re also just amazing, wonderful, competent women, and we make a great team.”

As with so many budding ventures, Poplawski, Hassan, and Hubbard are equally invested in keeping the operation afloat, ready to lend a helping hand (or six) wherever and whenever necessary.

“The fun thing about being owners is we’re also all doing dishes because there’s no dishwasher yet,” Poplawksi says with a sly smile. “There’s just a lot of different little tasks to get done.”

“We all do pretty much everything,” echoes Hassan. “Ordering, cooking, fighting, refining, hugging, all that stuff.”

For Hassan, the project resonates on a very personal level. “As far as the food concept goes, I grew up in a Muslim Palestinian family,” she says. “My dad was a refugee, and technically my mom was, too, but since we didn’t really have our mom’s presence in the house as children, we didn’t really get that food aspect of the culture, which is huge in Arab culture. As a part of reclaiming that, I taught myself to cook starting as a teenager.”

Photo courtesy of Yamma
Photo courtesy of Yamma
Photo courtesy of Yamma

Yamma means “mama” in Arabic, and the menu draws heavily on Hassan’s family recipes featuring spins on mezze staples like hummus, whipped feta, and muhammara spreads, falafel and plump lentil fritters, and addictive toasted pita strips alongside heftier plates like braised lamb with tender maftoul, flame-grilled shish tawook, and wraps stuffed with gorgeously seasoned mushroom shawarma. Playful additions like feta-smothered za’atar fries and fried oyster mushrooms with creamy housemade harissa fit right in with Pint’s beer-dominated drinks list. The majority of the bill leans toward the vegetarian or vegan end of the spectrum, a lifestyle that integrates easily into Palestinian tradition.

“It doesn’t utilize as much butter as other cuisines, which makes it way easier to do all the meatless stuff and still make it taste good because it’s already been done for a very long time,” Hassan explains. “Probably for Americans, it’s closer to what they think of as Greek food. Palestinian food also has influences of Northern Africa, Moroccan, and Egyptian cuisines, so it’s a little different than the Arab or Middle Eastern food that’s generally available.”

Hassan might be the only person of Palestinian descent helming the ship, but Hubbard stands strong as the prime mastermind in the kitchen. The executive chef never met a culinary challenge she didn’t like, and she sees Yamma’s veggie-centric vision as particularly beneficial to folks right here at home.

“I grew up predominantly on the west side of Chicago and western suburbs,” she says. “I’ve worked in every single kitchen that will hire me, from American gastropubs to bars to Chef’s Special. With Mediterranean food, it’s been a great experience. It’s a lot healthier, and that’s something I want to expand to my community, to introduce to people who think healthy foods aren’t good. Being a part of this was a way for me to get that word out there, because anytime I say I opened a vegan restaurant, everyone assumes it’s all tofu-not that there’s anything wrong with tofu, it’s just so much more than that.”

Photo courtesy of Yamma
Photo courtesy of Yamma
Photo courtesy of Yamma

Tofu jabs aside, Hassan notes that one of the reasons folks might not be too familiar with Palestinian cuisine has to do with the region’s very public political tensions and the shame and ridicule that media attention has produced among Palestinian Americans.

“A big part of why we’re so Palestinian-focused is because growing up, when I would go to restaurants, a lot of Palestinians would lie about their identity,” she says. “They say they’re Jordanian or Lebanese or just Middle Eastern. Serving in the past, I’ve gotten harsh responses to me being Palestinian and experienced deliberate boycotting of Palestinian-owned establishments. Seeing that my people were ashamed, when I come from such a proud background, made me very adamant about Yamma being proudly Palestinian.”

“Every culture has an actual culture to it, right?” Poplawksi chimes in. “That’s the whole point. You have food, you have a language, you have all this stuff, and a big part is trying to get people to understand that Palestine is not just a political identity, it’s an actual heritage that stretches back thousands of years.”

Yamma is open for indoor and outdoor dining at Pint Pub (1547 N Milwaukee Avenue) Wednesday through Thursday from 4 pm to 9pm and Friday through Sunday from 12 pm to 9 pm.
 

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Meredith Heil is a Senior Cities Editor at Thrillist. She’s flexing on Wicker Parkers as hard as she can, eating halal, driving the Lam’. Follow her @mereditto.

Chicago

Robyn DaCultyre Is Doing It for the Culture

"The cool thing about Ohio is that there is literally a place for everyone."

Photo by Kayode Omoyosi
Photo by Kayode Omoyosi
Photo by Kayode Omoyosi

I was introduced to Robyn DaCultyre at an Untitled Queen show at C’mon Everybody in late January, and it was one of the most unique drag shows I’d seen in a while. Afterwards, I tracked down this self-described “drag creature” and video chatted about her drag origin story, the state of drag in her native Ohio, and the dual identities that make up her persona. Thrillist: I want to ask you about how Robyn DaCultyre came about and your point of view behind your performance.

Robyn DaCultyre: I’ve been travelling around the country from a young age in ministry and Christian studies. I moved to Chicago right after high school. Four years later, moved back to Columbus and decided I didn’t really want to do church anymore; that wasn’t where my heart was.

I had a really low point in my life and had a suicide attempt and then really found drag and started doing drag as a coping mechanism and way to let off steam. I started in July of 2019, and it was really a lot of punk and metal music. I created this drag creature of sorts and they were really out of this world and celestial and all of those fun alien type terms.

And then we went into a global pandemic and I had a lot of time to figure out who I wanted to be. Digitally I was still doing a lot of drag creature-esque numbers and all of that, but I had this moment where we’re on the front lines getting hit with pepper spray and rubber bullets and pepper spray-all of those lovely things. And I said, I have this platform and I need to start showcasing what’s happening.

Untitled [Queen] stepped in at the right time and messaged me and said, “I’m doing this show for Independence Day called Untitled in America with 52 different performers and I want you to be a part of it.” It was at that moment I was able to take the footage I had been recording on the front lines and incorporate it into digital content. I did a song called Black Like Me by Mickey Guyton that talks about white picket fences, but if you want to see how America is, then you should try being Black like me. The imagery of what’s literally happening in Columbus in that digital performance really spearheaded me into focusing on people who look like me.

Nina Simone is one of my biggest inspirations, and one of her quotes that resonates with me is that it’s the duty of the artist to resonate with the times. My art is politically charged. I like to entertain, but there will definitely be a time when you come to a show expecting to have your drink and be chill and that might not be the case.

How did the name Robyn DaCultyre come about?

I was smoking with Ursula Major, who was on season one of Dragula, and the first time I introduced myself to her I was Robyn Banks, which is my drag name originally. She said, “Well, do you just not want to be original at all?” [Laughs] And I sat with that for a couple of months, and I got really stoned one day and was listening to Janelle Monae, and she talks about doing it for the culture, and I said “I do it for the culture, too!” And the rest is history.

And you started a series called Melanated.

We started Melanated last February. I told the idea to my show director that there were no shows specifically run by Black people that only featured Black entertainers. I wanted to do this show for a night and she said, Why don’t we do it once a week for the whole month? The first show happens, and it’s a sold out crowd, and [my director] comes back and says we should do this every month. So I sucked it up and here we are a year later.

Melanated is the only fully Black show in all of the state. It’s a horrible marketing tool and not something I want to promote, but it is just a fact. It amazes me that we are the 13th largest city in America and there’s nothing here that’s fully focused on Black entertainers. The name also comes from Janelle Monae; she says she’s highly melanated and I said, that works.

Photos by Chay Creates LLC (left) and Bridget Caswell (right)
Photos by Chay Creates LLC (left) and Bridget Caswell (right)
Photos by Chay Creates LLC (left) and Bridget Caswell (right)

You refer to yourself as a drag creature, as opposed to drag queen or king…

This is actually the first time I’m making this public. I am in this place where I want to separate the alternative creature from who this melanated goddess or whatever is. DaCultyre is definitely the person who runs Melanated and then Robyn is this drag creature that is out of this world and really loves punk and alternative music. And both intertwine to make Robyn DaCultyre.

You also do pageants. Tell me about that.

In 2020 I was appointed by Nina West, who is from Columbus, as the representative from Ohio for National Entertainer of the Year in Louisville, Kentucky. I placed ninth out of 13 contestants and I really fell in love with the system and fell in love with the pageantry and loved the idea of reigning and being different. I want to show that we as alternative performers, as bearded performers, you can come into these systems and shake things up.

Is there a uniquely “Ohio” style of drag?

No, and I think that’s one of the things that makes it so amazing is that everyone has their own unique style, and it’s all pretty much accepted. I started as a performer and a drag creature and there was space that was afforded to me and I transitioned to more glamor and pageantry and that’s afforded to me as well. I’ve been a bearded entertainer for a year now. The cool thing about Ohio is that there is literally a place for everyone.

I think I have everything I need. Is there anything else I didn’t ask you about that you want to bring up, or‚Ķ

I don’t think so. Are there any generic questions you haven’t asked?

Generic questions‚ĶI think I asked all of them already [laughs]. I like to ask what you’d be doing if you weren’t doing drag?

It’s a great question. I have a day job that is very demanding so I need drag to get away. I’m also very creative and artistic. I used to do web design and all these other things to pull into my creativity. Drag is the longest thing I’ve stuck with in all parts of my life, so I don’t think it’s going anywhere anytime soon.

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John deBary¬†is a drinks expert and writer. His first cocktail book,¬†Drink What You Want, is available now, and his next book,¬†Saved by the Bellini, is expected in early 2023. He is also the co-founder and president of the¬†Restaurant Workers’ Community Foundation, which is dedicated to improving the lives of hospitality industry professionals through advocacy, grant making, and impact investing.

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