Cafe Rakka: Fresh From Syria
Café Rakka may be a bit off the beaten path—about a twenty-minute drive out of the city in nearby Hendersonville—but when both my Moroccan computer tech and next-door foodie friend recommended it, I knew I had to make the venture north. It was worth it.
While the cafe is not much to look at, the food is—and this is what keeps Chef Rakka's loyal customers coming back. The creamy hummus is love-at-first-bite and so is the piquant baba ghanoush, both topped with a swale of olive oil, a dash of paprika, and a sprinkling of parsley, as well as pomegranate seeds and pickled turnips. The pita is soft and fresh, served warm from the oven. The lamb korma boasted big chunks of lamb bathed in a sauce of spices, tomatoes, sour cream and milk. Served with basmati rice, it is a dish that I shall now forever crave.
Chef Rakka, Riyad Alkasem, was born in Rakka (Ar Raqqah) Syria, located on the northeast bank of the Euphrates River just east of Aleppo. His ancestors built the city and, as Riyad says, they are “of the town,” and the reason he came by the name of Rakka years ago. Rakka learned to cook from his mother and grandmother, both of whom made cheese and yogurt and most everything else the old fashioned way—the way he himself now makes it. Rakka blends his own spices (which change with the seasons and can be purchased in little bottles), grinds his own meat, makes his own cheese, pita chips, and generally everything else on the menu. Clearly, he loves to cook, and not just for taste. He lives by the mantra that food is health, and that plays into everything on the menu, particularly the tea. The unsweetened black tea contains wildflowers and dried pomegranate. He saves pomegranates all year long and dries the skins in the summer sun. His red tea is made with a flower that is a cousin to the hibiscus and grows in the Syrian dessert. His neighbors, The Oak Ridge Boys, get two gallons of it before going out on the road. Rakka loves to talk about the folks that have been in: Neil Young came in once for the Shwarma, and Peter Frampton for the salmon. Kelly Clarkson has been eating there for over six years. Rakka sheepishly admits he didn’t know who any of them were, until someone pointed it out.
Rakka’s love of cooking is infectious. On our visit, he brought out fresh haloumi cheese he had just made, sliced it, sprinkled it with his homemade spice blend, and drizzled it with olive oil. He also makes a fresh sweet cheese which he layers in baklava on occasion. He served it to us drizzled with local honey and dusted with chopped pistachios. His lamb burger has been voted the best and is not on the menu. Ask for it.
Due to the civil war, Rakka’s mother had to leave Syria two years ago for Saudi Arabia. She can’t wait to go “home,” which at this point is uninhabitable. If she comes to Hendersonville, she’ll get a little closer at Rakka Café.