A Jew, a Palestinian and a Southerner walk into a restaurant …
Make that three restaurants. But someone got it mixed up along the way, so the Jew, a former vegan, makes some of the most outstanding small batch, whole-hog barbeque around. The Palestinian features a unique, gorgeous shiny boat-shaped elongated Reuben sandwich – a deli classic, but on Arab Fatayer bread instead of rye. And the southerner ... well, he serves his home-made pastrami on a scratch-made biscuit.
Sam Suchoff of The Pig started out as a math major on a fencing scholarship, Matt Neal an art student and Jamil Kadoura a dishwasher in Minneapolis. Matt was most food-prone as his parents Moreton Neal and the late Bill Neal started La Residence and then Bill launched Crooks Corner. Five years ago, Matt with his wife Sheila, formerly manager of the Carrboro Farmer’s Market, launched Neal’s Deli, wedged into a tiny spot on South Greensboro Street in Carrboro.
Me: “Matt, why would a nice southern boy like you end up with a deli? Especially one with just three tables an outdoor counter and no back door?”
Matt’s pragmatic response, “When I realized I wanted to open a restaurant, there were plenty of evening dining options here but not many good lunch spots.”
And as he told Julia Moskin of the New York Times in 2010, “We don’t pretend to be a Jewish deli, or a New York deli. This is just the kind of good, real food I decided I wanted to eat for lunch every day.”
But there’s more to it; as a long-time pastrami eater, I’d put Matt’s meat up against anyone’s anywhere though it took me a bit of internal cultural culinary wrangling to succumb to the concept of pastrami on a biscuit ... and it does get along with brown mustard, though the yellow stuff’s available. Matt says he goes through a gallon of Guldens Brown deli mustard daily while it takes a week to use a quart of French’s yellow.
The pastrami from briskets sourced by Cliff’s Meat Market is brined then spiced and smoked in the kitchen, taking 10 days. All salads are prepared from scratch including a 17-ingredient chick pea concoction. Neal’s Deli’s unique pickled green tomatoes are a surprising mix of the vinegar-based southern pickle with a bit of sugar but spiced with the Eastern European blend of garlic, mustard and coriander you’d find in a brined sour tomato pickle out of a barrel on the Lower East Side. And he gets his bacon from who else... Sam Suchoff the nice Jewish boy who owns The Pig, cross town on Weaver Dairy Road.
When I asked Sam, whose parents I’d met years ago at Judea Reform Temple in Durham, how his family felt about him opening ‘The Pig’, he said “Not so great.’ I took that to mean they opposed the cultural contradictions inherent in Jews embracing the butchering, cooking and serving of pork. But it wasn’t that so much as it was the risk of opening a restaurant.
The Pig seems unlikely to fail. It’s full daily at lunch. Sam, like Matt, is enamored of food and also a practical man. He told me, “You know this whole locavore thing is a trend and you can’t build a business on a trend. I want to be a small restaurant with great stuff, and a really great mix of people comes here. I have strong support from my vegetarian customers too.”
At 13 Sam became a vegetarian to, as he put it, “Either impress a girl or help me lose some weight, maybe some of both.” While in college at NYU he became a vegan because the girlfriend-at-the-time was one. After returning to Chapel Hill and realizing he liked coffee more than math, Sam began a stint at the Open Eye that morphed into cooking apprenticeships at Neal’s Deli, then Lantern where he honed his skills.
Through working with the NC Choices to connect farmers and restaurants he came to deeply know the farmers who raised the animals he was cooking and committed to pasture-raised hormone-free pork. Then finally it was on to the Barbeque Joint, the Pig’s predecessor at the same spot. When the Barbeque joint closed, Caitlyn, Sam’s life partner said simply ‘You should take this over’ so he did.
Now in addition to what my wife declares to be some of the best barbeque she’s eaten and she’s from Lexington, N.C. so she ought to know, Sam provides a unique but recognizable menu including southern style cucumber pickles, fried okra, house made franks (pork of course), coconut cake, deep fried moon pies (really) a Shitake Po’ Boy, ‘shrooms and [Brusells] sprouts (told you he loved his vegetarian friends),
Regarding the seeming contradiction of being the Jewish pig purveyor , he told me: “It’s not a cultural thing that drives my food interests, it’s the food that helps me find my way into various cultures. Plus I really have gotten into charcuterie. I like processing meat. So that salami sandwich I have on the menu now is because I got a veal calf from Chapel Hill Creamery.”
Back downtown you’ll find Jamil Kadoura, 52, the senior member of this three-man cultural food mash up. He’s been at it over 20 years having opened the Med Deli in 1992 in a tiny hole-in-the-wall on Franklin Street. Now Med Deli’s an institution having taken over about a third of the 400 block of West Franklin including just setting up the first gluten-free pita bread bakery in the region.
One of the anomalies on Jamil’s largely middle-eastern oriented menu is a great big Reuben Sandwich. He fell in love with the (decidedly non-Kosher) Reuben growing up in Jerusalem where it had become ubiquitous after its invention in this country by Jewish restaurateurs in either New York or Omaha Nebraska. “Big fat Reubens,” he recalled grinning and holding his hands six inches apart.
His Reuben by contrast is flat, sleek and shiny in its Fatayer shell, but so full of the mixed classic flavor combining corned beef, sauerkraut, swiss cheese and Russian dressing that it’s easy to embrace the cultural clash that made it happen. And as he asks with his endearingly dazzling smile, “Where else are you going to find a Palestinian Muslim who caters half the bar mitzvahs in town and makes this great Reuben sandwich?”
Contact Blair Pollock at firstname.lastname@example.org