Immigrant-run restaurants contribute to the soul of Orange County
“When people sit down to share a meal, food becomes a bridge between cultures, lifestyles and backgrounds,” said Laurie Paolicelli, Director of the Chapel Hill/Orange County Visitors Bureau. The greater Chapel Hill area – always welcoming ways to bridge our divides – boasts some 200 restaurants, with many serving authentic foods from other countries. Paolicelli said that every night restaurants are filled with family and friends enjoying a meal together in a warm, inviting and jovial atmosphere. Want to try something new? Here are five immigrant-run restaurants to check out in 2023.
Jamil Kadoura, owner of Med Deli restaurant and grocery market on Franklin Street, immigrated to the United States to study business management at the Minnesota School of Business. He then started working in the food and beverage industry. “I immigrated to the US in 1982 in search of education. I worked in the hotel and restaurant business, starting as a dishwasher and getting one promotion after another.” Today, Jamil operates several restaurant locations, a public meeting and event venue, The Story on Franklin Street, and a thriving catering business. “Good food always brings good people together,” he said. The restaurant is packed daily.
That of Talulla
A few doors down on Franklin Street is Talulla’s. Established in 2004, Talulla’s has quickly become a favorite dining and late-night destination. To an infrequent visitor, the changes at Talulla’s might have gone unnoticed when the Chapel Hill restaurant changed hands in 2007. After all, the menu remained Turkish and the place continued to look like a Turkish restaurant. Moorish parchment chandeliers still hang from the high ceilings, lending a warm glow to everything from the colorful rugs covering the walls to the honey-hued tones of well-worn hardwood floors. The restaurant’s current owners wanted to keep the feel of the restaurant so many loved, so they kept much of the same decor and menu items while adding their own personal touches. Some favorite dishes include Mücver, for starters, crispy disc-shaped biscuits of zucchini, feta and egg with fresh herbs. Sigara böregi, deep-fried phyllo “cigars” filled with Turkish feta and parsley, served with a smoky pepper dipping sauce.
Vimala’s Curryblossom Cafe
Around the corner from Talullas is Vimala’s Curryblossom Cafe. Opened in 2010 by Vimala Rajendran, the restaurant offers home-style Indian cuisine and Southern fare with local produce and pasture-raised meats.
Vimala Rajendran was born in Kerala and grew up in Mumbai. She traveled to Ann Arbor, Michigan at age 19 to join her husband while pregnant with her first child. After a brief return to India, she settled in Chapel Hill and later opened her cafe in 1985.
Rajendran cooks many of her mother’s recipes from Kerala cuisine, such as sambar, but she is also inspired by the Maharashtrian cuisine of her childhood, and Punjabi cuisine, especially samosas. The restaurant’s menu also includes tandoori chicken, pulled pork, chole, dosas, collard greens, chai, and cardamom chocolate brownies.
Since 2006, Kevin Zhu has owned and operated the Red Lotus restaurant in Chapel Hill, near Whole Foods on Elliot Road. Zhu originally worked in kitchens while living in Shanghai, building the knowledge base he would use when his family moved to the United States.
His parents, Wanly and “Ping” Zhu, were originally bankers, but the poor living conditions in the densely populated city of Shanghai forced them to set their sights elsewhere. His father was the original momentum behind the restaurant business, as he was a self-proclaimed “worshiper of food” and easily picked up the trade. Zhu’s parents still help and are often seen smiling and talking to guests during lunch and dinner.
Many regulars at Red Lotus know that Kevin Zhu added a separate menu to showcase the cuisine of Shanghai, where he lived and cooked before coming to America. With that addition, Red Lotus became one of only a handful of area restaurants to offer an authentic Chinese menu, and one of only a few to serve Shanghainese cuisine.
Many of these specialty dishes must be ordered 24 hours in advance.
Nomad – Hillsborough
Down the street in neighboring Hillsborough, you’ll want to eat at Nomad.
Located on King Street in Hillsborough, this cozy spot calls itself “the travelers home” and offers a global dining experience unlike anything else in the area.
BJ Patel owns the restaurant with his wife, Smita, and brother, Sejal. “With its proximity to Chapel Hill, Durham and Carrboro, we definitely bring an educated taste. People are more open to different cuisines. Not just meat and potatoes. I definitely think that once they come in here and try the flavors, they” will keep coming back.”
And Nomad boasts a plethora of flavors. “We take flavors from India, Korea, Thailand, South America and Europe and infuse all the flavors with contemporary dishes. It could be a Korean nacho. It could be a curry korma poutine. Our chef, RJ St. John, is half Irish and half Korean. He knows how to give a dish a new twist.”