One tradition that has characterized many of the Middle Eastern immigrants whove settled in Lafayette over the last century is a strong spirit of entrepreneurship. Entrepreneurship takes a little guts, something and his family seem to have a lot of. Back in 1981, when just about the only ethnic foods to be found in Lafayette were Cajun or Creole and a touch of Italian, the Loli family opened an international market selling products commonly found in their homeland of Syria and in the broader Mediterranean area. Until that time, members of Lafayette's Middle Eastern community were better known for their success in other kinds of businesses, such as retail merchandise. With Cedar Deli, however, the Loli family was among the first to widely introduce the exotic cuisines of the Mediterranean to Lafayette. Many more Middle Eastern restaurants have opened since then, but it was the plucky entrepreneurship of the Loli family that paved the way for those that followed.
Nabil Loli eventually took over running the business and replaced some of the Cedar Deli's grocery aisles with tables and chairs in order to sell sandwiches with an international appeal. They were very different from the hamburgers and po-boys that Lafayette diners were used to. But twenty-five years and thousands of sandwiches later, it's safe to say that the locals have developed a liking for the flavors of the Eastern Mediterranean. In fact, Cedar Deli has helped to cultivate a growing culinary tradition in the region, as Loli finds himself fixing sandwiches for the children of the customers he served when the deli first opened.
Upon stepping into Cedar Deli, your senses immediately alert you to the fact that you've departed from the familiar: international flags drape from the ceiling, barrels of cured olives buttress the desert case, and Loli welcomes his customers in an accent quite unlike the conventional Cajun English of the region. But it's the aroma of the place, unique to Cedar Deli, that seeps deepest into the imagination, wrapping itself around you like the fog of faraway places.
Everything about the deli seems designed to transport customers to the Mediterranean lands from which a considerable number of Lafayette's immigrant families have come. The cedar for which the deli is named is an ancient emblem for historic regions of the Middle East, dating back to the Old Testament, and it remains the insignia on the flag of Lebanon today.
But it's the food at Cedar Deli that really completes the journey and brings you ashore in Mediterranean territory. Customers come from the nearby downtown districts or the neighboring university to enjoy any of the 17 international sandwiches, to dip their pita in a dollop of hoummus or baba ghanoug, or to leisurely sip Turkish coffee.
Loli's sandwiches invite experimentation, but he's careful to observe his customers' tastes. Everything he serves 'has a customer for it'; if a new sandwich doesn't sell, it doesn't stay on the menu. Some find a new food experience in the Labani, a condensed yogurt product accompanied by kalamata olives, lettuce, tomatoes, olive oil, and mint, served on French bread. Others enjoy the Italian Muffalata, a longtime favorite in New Orleans, introduced by Sicilian immigrants there. And, of course, concessions are made to the perhaps less adventurous who want to stay closer to home with the American Choice: provolone cheese, lettuce, tomatoes and a choice of one meat-ham, turkey, or roast beef-on French bread. But staying close to home is hardly the point of visiting Cedar Deli in the first place.
Along with the uncommon foods you can enjoy at the Cedar Deli, there's also the uncommon food you can take home to your own kitchen. Loli prides himself on a specialty market that supplies the best selection of imported items-foods from remote places, not to be found in any other market in town. And even when it comes those Mediterranean items that can be purchased in ordinary grocery stores, such as olive oil, Cedar Deli's imports often offer a degree of quality and authenticity unmatched outside their native markets.
The Middle Eastern immigrants who settled in Lafayette inevitably have undergone a process of adaptation and acculturation to their new adoptive home. But newcomers have a wonderful way of changing their neighbors a little too; families like the Lolis have enriched the life and character of the city by bringing with them a little of the homeland they left behind. Cedar Deli offers exactly that, and its customers are often characterized as being especially open-minded and welcoming of new experiences and influences. Those are healthy qualities in individuals and in a community. And, as it turns out, Mediterranean foods can be quite healthy for the body as well.
Owner: Nabil Loli
Address: 1115 Jefferson St. Lafayette, LA
Hours: M-F: 10:00 am - 5:00 pm, Sat: 10:00 am - 4:00 pm
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