A Melting Pot of Cultures: How Chapel Hill’s Wealth of Ethnic Restaurants and Grocery Stores Offer More than Just Delicious Food


By Laurie Paolicelli

Jamil Kadoura, Owner of Mediterranean Deli.

Jamil Kadoura, owner of Mediterranean Deli on Franklin Street, emigrated from the Middle East to the United States and studied business management at the Minnesota School of Business. Afterwards he began working in the Food and Beverage industry. He transferred to North Carolina and worked his way up to the position of Food and Beverage Director, the highest position in the industry. With the support of his wife Angela, Jamil followed his lifelong dream and opened up his own Deli in 1992. “I come from a family of sixteen. When the 1967 War started, I was seven years old. I lived in a refugee camp near the city of Nablus called Rafedya. I immigrated to the U.S. in 1982 seeking education. I worked in the hotel and restaurant business starting as a dishwasher and getting one promotion after another. Eventually, I became the Director of Food and Beverage in hotels (the highest position in the food business in hotels). It had always been my dream to open my own restaurant, and I realized that, “this is the time!”

Today Jamil operates several restaurant locations, a public meeting and event venue, The Story on Franklin Street, and a thriving catering business. He runs a small grocery market connected to the Med-Deli location in Chapel Hill. “Good food always brings good people together.” The restaurant is packed daily.

Talullas delicious menu has been attracting visitors for decades.

A few doors down is Talullas. Established in 2007 and owned by Canan & Ali Sevil, Talullas has become a favorite dining and late night destination among locals and visiting foodies alike with their unique Turkish Cuisine. Turkish cuisine is one of the world’s top cuisines, joining the ranks of French, Chinese, Italian. Like the country’s cultural mosaic, the food at Talullas is very colorful and contains countless different influences and tastes. The cuisine of Turkey has continued to evolve over centuries, deriving influence from its rich history of lands that hosted first the Byzantine, and then the Ottoman Empires.

Some favorite menu items:

Sebzeli Musakka: Layers of eggplant, zucchini, carrots, peas, peppers, onions, tomatoes and potatoes, topped with Bechamel sauce and cheese.

Baklava: Baklava is a decadent dessert pastry made from layers of filo dough, which are then filled with chopped nuts and soaked in sugar syrup. It originated in Ottoman Palace kitchens and became the most popular dessert in Turkey.

Vimala Rajendran, Owner of Vimala’s Curryblossom Café.

Around the corner from Talullas is Vimala’s Curryblossom Café. Vimala Rajendran, an Indian immigrant to the United States, opened the restaurant in 2010. The restaurant purveys home-style Indian cuisine, and Southern food with local produce and pasture-raised meats. The company has provided free lunches in support of refugees at various events.

Vimala Rajendran was born in Kerala and raised in Mumbai, attending college in Sion at age 17. She married at age 19 and moved to Ann Arbor, Michigan, to join her husband while pregnant with her first child. Rajendran returned to India in 1983 and returned to the US to Chapel Hill in 1985.

She began selling food in Chapel Hill in 1994 with weekly donation-based community dinners. Two years prior, she had cooked a large dinner for neighbors and was motivated to continue. They also served a source of income for Rajendran’s family. As a dependent spouse, she did not have legal authorization to work, and she served take-out dinners in an “underground” status from her house until 2010.

The restaurant’s fare consists of home-style Indian cuisine and North Carolinian cuisine. Rajendran’s daughter Anjali was the restaurant’s pastry chef, while son Rajeev and daughter Manju work for Vimala’s, as needed.

Rajendran cooks many of her mother’s recipes of the cuisine of Kerala, like sambar. It is also inspired by Maharashtrian cuisine, where Rajendran grew up, and Punjabi cuisine, especially samosas. The restaurant’s menu also includes tandoori chicken, pulled pork, chole, dosas, collard greens, chai, and cardamom-chocolate brownies.

Vimala is a longtime activist for progressive causes including grassroots media, farmworker and restaurant worker rights, and environmental justice.

Owner of Red Lotus Kevin Zhu and Family.

Since 2006, Kevin Zhu has owned and operated 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 that he would need later once his family moved to the States.

His parents, Wanly and “Ping” Zhu were originally Shanghai bankers but the poor living conditions in the heavily populated city of Shanghai forced them to set their sights elsewhere. His father was the original momentum behind the business, as he was a self-proclaimed worshipper of food and easily picked up the restaurant trade. Zhu’s parents still help out and are often seen smiling and talking with guests at lunch and dinner time.

Many regulars to 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 offering an authentic Chinese menu, and one of just a few serving Shanghainese cuisine.

Mango popsicles at Panaderia Pahuatlan II.

To truly get a feel for the Orange County region’s various ethnic communities, a good place to go is its small grocery stores.

At these stores, community members can read newspapers in their native languages. They can hear about community gatherings. They can find out where the houses of worship are. They bring people closer to their native culture and help them introduce that culture to others.

Mariakakis Fine Food & Wine.

Mariakakis Fine Food & Wine is an unassuming gem of a local grocery shop located near Eastgate shopping center in Chapel Hill. Whether you’re looking for halva, labneh, and preserved lemons or specialty jams and spices, Mariakakis is guaranteed to have any Mediterranean pantry, freezer, and fresh items, and best of all it is locally owned.

Any store that has 5 brands of tahini, for example is unique. Many Lebanese relatives rave about their olive assortment and visit regularly to stock up on phyllo dough.

The owner is very friendly and helpful, and the overall experience of shopping here is a wonderful blend of finding ingredients customers have long sought for specific. Mariakakis Fine Food & Wine is the creation of Johnny Mariakakis, who in 1997, decided to fulfill his dream and converted the family enterprise from restaurant to a full-fledged specialty food store.

Although the family heritage is Greek, this store’s selection has greatly expanded into other European and Middle Eastern cuisines.

Fresh Produce at Myo Htet Asian Market.

A Sampling of Other Local Ethnic Grocers:

For more information, visit www.visitchapelhill.org and find https://chapelhilldiversity.com.

Laurie Paolicelli is the Executive Director of the Chapel Hill/Orange County Visitors Bureau.

Share This Article

Scroll down to make a comment.

Be the first to comment on "A Melting Pot of Cultures: How Chapel Hill’s Wealth of Ethnic Restaurants and Grocery Stores Offer More than Just Delicious Food"

Leave a comment

Your email address will not be published.