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

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

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.”

Katie Poplawski, Ruba Hassan, and Tierra Hubbard | 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

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

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.