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Fresh Eats: Neal’s Deli

Instead of England’s early Sunday dinner, a postchurch ordeal of heavy meats and savory pies, why not a new meal, served around noon, that starts with tea or coffee, marmalade and other breakfast fixtures before moving along to the heavier fare? By eliminating the need to get up early on Sunday, brunch would make life brighter for Saturday-night carousers. It would promote human happiness in other ways as well. Brunch is cheerful, sociable and inciting. It is talk-compelling. It puts you in a good temper, it makes you satisfied with yourself and your fellow beings, it sweeps away the worries and cobwebs of the week.

- Guy Beringer, “Brunch: A Plea,” Hunter’s Weekly, 1895

The above is often cited as the first mention/coining of the term “brunch.” Don’t be put off that it’s coming from Wikipedia, which can be spotty on accuracy, because in the end that suits brunch perfectly. No one can define exactly what it is anyway. The only thing to be sure of is it has a lot to do with what Mr. Beringer said: brunch has its own vibe — it’s an atmosphere, an event.

Everyone knows the components of a Triangle-area Sunday Brunch: a little breakfast, a little lunch, some fresh fruit, a specialty drink of some kind. But in the end the point isn’t that there’s an entire new menu or ingredients, just that there’s been a slight twist or tweak that makes the menu… brunch.

Brunch is just… different. It’s fresh-squeezed juice instead of from-concentrate, it’s cantaloupe instead of the usual banana, it’s a glass-bottled soda instead of a fountain drink with high fructose corn syrup. It changes up the routine, gives restaurants another excuse to push fresh ingredients, and simply adds another component to a downtown scene with an already bright cultural landscape.

It isn’t hard to see where Neal’s Deli fits into this. Last Sunday was their first brunch-time menu, and even though they’re not changing their normal breakfast set-up significantly (or even officially calling it brunch), you can’t help but broadcast some of those brunch-vibes that go along with any early midday Sunday meal.

Breakfast food? Check. Fresh fruit juices and specialty drinks? Check. Laidback atmosphere/outside seating at a unique location? Check. The freshest local ingredients available? Big check.

The general idea with brunch is that it’s hearty enough for a meal, but keeps aspects of a light snack, which might be why brunch is so readily identified by fresh produce and juice. And of course “fresh” is what makes Neal’s “Neal’s.” Somehow, they’ve found a way to supply ridiculously delicious southern-style breakfast foods without spilling over into a greasy mess.

This is most obvious with their biscuits, which are made from scratch with locally milled King Arthur’s Flour, buttermilk from right down the road at Maple View Farms in Hillsborough and Cabot Creamery butter. They’re fabulous and the absolute definition of a perfectly toed line between comfort southern cooking and not making whatever you were eating them on transparent by the end of the meal.

All of Neal’s meats and produce are brought in as local as possible, and even that which isn’t hyper-local is selected for freshness and quality. There’s a homemade hot sauce, made with Serrano peppers, that is fantastic. It’s much like the Sriracha we’ve all heard so much about, but with a less vinegary tinge that keeps it tasting cleaner with more distinct flavor.

They have Boylans soda, a few microbrewed bottled beers, fresh-squeezed OJ and Martinelli’s apple juice. The last item is cool because (other than the fact that fresh juice is synonymous with brunch) unlike 99% of the AJ you’ve probably ever tasted, Martinelli’s doesn’t have added ascorbic acid for vitamin C content. Ascorbic acid is the reason most apple juices give you that sour “pucker up” face at the end of every sip. Well, Martinelli’s doesn’t, and it’s why it is a can’t-miss item at Neal’s to make their Sunday breakfast into your Sunday Brunch.

Even with the wealth of breakfast staples, you have to remember that Neal’s is still a Deli. And no Deli is going to be successful without some really good pastrami. But to stay with our theme here: Neal’s does everything a little different. I doubt I this is breaking news, but when I asked owner Sheila Neal what I should get she smiled and said, “Well, our pastrami has a bit of a following.”

A following.

Sheila starts with antibiotic and hormone free, Animal Welfare Certified beef. The few spices added (a black pepper rub, juniper and coriander) keep things familiar but the way they prepare it is what’s unique. While most pastrami is cold-smoked and then steamed, Neal’s hot-smokes their house made pastrami so it doesn’t have to be reheated, rendering it much fresher once it reaches your plate.

The end result is fantastic pastrami that is flavorful but not overly salted and watered down. And it makes perfect sense that Neal’s two most homemade items are often combined together into Pastrami Biscuits. Normally those two items have connotations of a six hour nap afterwards, but when ingredients are fresh and homemade without the drag of sodium and preservatives, a hearty, southern, comfort food meal can somehow remain light and fresh — perfect for a brunch-esque meal.

In the end, this is what brunch is all about. It starts with great food, it’s different and unique, but it also has a certain element of freshness and energy that makes you want to start your day, whether you’re lounging around or have some recreation to attend to. And it goes without saying that this atmosphere is perfect for Neal’s, and it’s part of the reason why they’re so famous.

Photo by dennisandluba via Flickr


Your Vacation: Animal Welfare Approved

Please pardon my tardy posting this week. I’m just waking up from the food coma induced by this past Sunday’s Farm to Fork picnic, the annual fundraiser for farmer apprentice programs hosted by NC State’s Center for Environmental Farming Systems and Slow Food Triangle

Sure I spend much of my time searching out prime food bargains in the Chapelboro, but I’m not a sucker for just any buffet. Stuffing my face with cheap eats just doesn’t satisfy. When we relocated to Chapel Hill from New York City in 2008, my husband and I chose this town largely because the people and snackie establishments here forced us to really think about the origins of our food. We’d sit down for a snack at a bar and see the name of the farm that provided the basil in our pesto. We’d pop into a store for a bottle of wine and see photos of a burly, mustachioed Frenchman standing in the vineyard that sourced the booze in our hands. 

Slowly, quietly, we really started to care about this stuff. The cool thing about this area is that we’ve been able to find lots of other people who care too. The really really cool thing about this area is that there are numerous nonprofits situated within about 30 miles that help people make informed decisions about their food choices. One of my faves just happens to be Animal Welfare Approved

Animal Welfare Approved “audits, certifies and supports farmers raising their animals with the highest welfare standards, outdoors on pasture or range. Called a ‘badge of honor for farmers’ and the ‘gold standard,’ AWA has come to be the most highly regarded food label when it comes to animal welfare, pasture-based farming, and sustainability.” 

More than two dozen restaurants in the Chapelboro receive the Animal Welfare Approved label including my crushes Neal’s Deli and The Pig. You can be old school and search for their sticker in the window.  Or you can plan ahead and check out this super cool online search tool to find restaurants, markets, and stores within a specific zip code that serve up Animal Welfare Approved products. Since you can search any zip code in the USA, I’ve found this tool especially handy when traveling. Oh the joys of being an informed tourist

Just a little tip as you prepare to eat and drink your way through another celebration of our nation’s independence. Happy 4th!