By Kirk Ross
From the intersection of Main and Greensboro, youâ€™ll take the sidewalk along the east side and veer onto the ramp. Further down the sidewalk, thereâ€™ll also be a short flight of stairs to the porch and entryway.
That how to get to Nealâ€™s Deli, due to open in â€œearly 2008â€ â€” and judging from the buzz already going on around town, if youâ€™re planning on heading there around lunchtime, expect some company.
Right now, though, the roughly 700-square-foot space at 100C South Greensboro Street is being stripped down and rebuilt. The framing is up where the counter will be and only a temporary table sits where thereâ€™ll be a line of fourtops. The vision, though, is pretty clear â€” classic deli. The Neals, freshly returned from a tour of neighborhood delis in New York City, are determined to create for Carrboro the kind of places they saw there â€” community institutions with regulars lined up each lunch out the door.
â€œWe walked through Italian, Jewish and Chinese neighborhoods,â€ Matt Neal said. â€œWe ate pickles on the Lower East Side, right on the sidewalk.â€
Theyâ€™re borrowing from the traditions of those Italian, Jewish, Chinese and Vietnamese neighborhood delis, but not trying to mimic them. â€œThatâ€™s why the name made sense â€” this is our take on the deli,â€ Sheila Neal said.
â€œOur favorite places have family names,â€ her husband added.
The exact menu has been in evolution over the past four years, since the idea of starting a deli first took hold. Now, with the opening not far away, itâ€™s started to come together. First, a few absolutes: â€œWe are definitely going to make our own corned beef,â€ Matt Neal says.
â€œAnd pastrami,â€ Sheila Neal adds.
Pickles, though, are going to be tough. Because of concerns about a good steady supply of cucumbers, they might be seasonal. A pickle barrel, however, is already on the list of regular fixtures.
The couple has been experimenting with pickling for some time â€” Matt makes a mean kimchi â€” and plenty of pickled condiments are planned. Sides will include slaws and greens.
Naturally, a selection of meats and featured local cheeses will be available by the pound as well.
For Sheila Neal, itâ€™s an especially hectic time as she prepares to leave her job as manager of the Carrboro Farmersâ€™ Market.
Then thereâ€™s Hank, the coupleâ€™s occasionally rambunctious two year old, who keeps his parents busy.
Matt Neal literally grew up in the food business and could often be found at his mother Moreton Nealâ€™s place, La Residence, or at Crooks Corner, where his father, chef Bill Neal, honed his now-legendary take on southern cooking.
And though Mattâ€™s spent most of his time in the business as a bartender at Crooks and the Orange County Social Club, heâ€™s never lost touch with his roots in the kitchen. Heâ€™s not a Carrboro native, but heâ€™s lived here most of his childhood and, though he lived occasionally in Chapel Hill, Carrboro is home, and Mattâ€™s especially proud to have the chance to cook for the town.
Sheila and Matt say the response already has been a boost, and say itâ€™s coming together thanks to the townâ€™s revolving loan program and help from friends like Cray Gunn, a childhood chum of Mattâ€™s whose Custom Carpentry is handling construction, and veteran restaurant designer John Lindsey, who came out of retirement to work on the design and is said to already be waiting for a liverwurst on rye.
And while there are plenty of local examples of more elaborate cooking, one of Nealâ€™s early mottos is â€œnothing fancy.â€ The price point, Sheila Neal said, is a good lunch for a little more than $8 so that Nealâ€™s will become the kind of place you return to on a regular basis. Neither Neal is willing to guess when that first lunch rush will come, saying only that it should happen long before spring. Both of them agree, though, on what the vision is for a typical noon hour at Nealâ€™s.
â€œWhatâ€™ll it be like?â€ Sheila Neal said, repeating the question, then sweeping her arm from the counter to the sidewalk on Greensboro Street, adding: â€œLined up out the door.â€