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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 books—including Biscuits, Spoonbread & Sweet Potato Pie—were among the first serious works on regional American foodways.

matt neal

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."

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The vibe of Neal's Deli, which is open only for breakfast and lunch, is casual and eclectic. Walls are covered in a brightly patterned wallpaper that recalls Moroccan tile work. The sound system plays indie-music favorites like the New Pornographers. A line cook wears a Krispy Kreme paper hat. The cooking at Neal's Deli is also honest and playful. Hot dogs, for instance, are topped with butter-fried apples and cheddar. "The dog was my sister Madeline's idea," Matt says. "She wanted to put a slice of apple pie on a hot dog. And the taste worked, kind of like how applesauce goes with pork chops."

Of course, the Neals rely on North Carolina–raised ingredients. (Before she became a restaurateur, Sheila managed the local farmers' market for four years.) That means Matt mixes his biscuit dough with organic flour from Lindley Mills in Graham, North Carolina. For the pastrami, he buys antibiotic- and hormone-free brisket from Cliff's Meat Market down the street. He cures it for a week and smokes it in a metal box the size of a home refrigerator. "Around here, we know what smoke does for meat," says Matt, tipping his hat to local barbecue tradition.

But many of the choices on the menu have little connection to the South. The Neals construct zucchini sandwiches, layered with tomatoes and olivada, that taste like market lunches airmailed from Provence. They sell slow-roasted-pork subs instead of barbecue sandwiches, because, as Matt puts it, "Whole-hog barbecue is a life's work, not just lunch."

matt neal

Photo © John Kernick.

A close read of Bill Neal's work reveals a family precedent for such an expansive approach. Neither his food nor his writings were wholly provincial. At La Résidence, the French farmhouse restaurant he ran in the 1970s, he built an early reputation not on collards with ham hocks but on ratatouille, which was similar to the ratatouille Matt now serves on a roll with goat cheese.

And so it goes with Matt and Sheila. They're raising their two children a few blocks from the deli, in a bungalow once owned by Bill. But they are making their own way, too. "We're not trying to cook Southern; we're not trying to cook Northern," Matt says. "We're just doing the kind of food our family likes to eat."

John T. Edge, director of the Southern Foodways Alliance at the University of Mississippi, is co-editor of the Southern Foodways Alliance Community Cookbook.

Published September 2010
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