Matt Neal didn't learn to cook from his father. "We had his books for that," says the 39-year-old owner of Neal's Deli, a shotgun café in Carrboro, the onetime mill village that abuts the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. "But I did learn how to eat from him." Matt's father was Bill Neal, the pioneering chef who, in 1982, opened Crook's Corner in Chapel Hill with a menu of reinvented Southern dishes like shrimp and grits. His booksincluding Biscuits, Spoonbread & Sweet Potato Piewere among the first serious works on regional American foodways.
Photo © John Kernick.
But when Matt and his wife, Sheila, (photo) built their deli, they reached beyond the Magnolia Curtain for inspiration. They bake biscuits that wouldn't taste out of place at a meat-and-three, but they also smoke brisket for pastrami to rival Katz's Delicatessen's in New York City. And they serve that pastrami on those biscuits, not for shock value, but because the combination tastes copacetic.
"We're from the South, but we're not limited by it," says Matt, who, before opening the deli two years ago, was an artist who earned spending money tending bar and smoking whole hogs. "We were inspired by New York delis. And by grits-and-eggs diners all across the South. And by New Orleans restaurants, the kind with the family name on the sign."