Sumela Restaurant

Sumela Restaurant in High Point, North Carolina

A highly popular Turkish restaurant, Sumela Restaurant is very busy, especially at lunchtime. Tucked away in a strip mall the ambiance is cheerful and pleasing with plants and Turkish decor — copper pots displayed on shelves, beautiful Turkish ceramic plates and red carpet displayed on the walls. Turkish music plays in the background and the restaurant has plenty of natural daylight. Outdoor seating is a popular choice during warm weather but we sat indoors as it was a cold day.


Sumela Restaurant
Sumela Restaurant

I met with the owner, Mehmet Cakal to interview him about his background and how he came to open the restaurant.
Mehmet is soft-spoken, but I sense his strength. He hails from Trabzon, Turkey--a province located on the coast of the Black Sea and at the foothills of the Pontic Alps in the NE corner of Turkey. The area is famous for an ancient Greek monastery, Soumela.

Sumela Restaurant
Sumela Restaurant

This Greek Orthodox monastery was founded in 386 AD and is dedicated to the Virgin Mary. The monastery was built on Mela Mountain within the Pontic Mountains range, in the Maçka district of Trabzon Province in modern Turkey. Soumela means "Black Mountain." The monastery sits on the narrow ledge of a steep cliff.
After immigrating to the USA from Trabzon, Turkey in 1989 Mehmet started a new life in Williamsburg, Virginia. Seven years later he moved to North Carolina. He opened a restaurant in High Point, NC in 1997 and named it Sumela Restaurant--after the Greek monastery. At the restaurant, there is a framed picture of the monastery hanging on the wall, in honor of the monastery.
Initially, Mehmet served grilled hamburgers. Over time people started asking for Turkish food. He realized there was a need and market, especially with the twice-yearly International Furniture Mart Event where designers and customers come from all over the world. Not only is his cuisine popular but locals, visitors, and employees adore him.

Mehmet describes Turkish cuisine as being diverse and includes a lot of vegetables in addition to lamb, beef and chicken. Friends and family members enjoy getting together often for meals. A large pot or platter of food is placed in the center so everyone can eat together. A popular Turkish food is Doner--or Gyro as it is known here. As Mehmet hails from the Black Sea area, seafood--especially fish--is a staple in that region.
The spices he uses commonly in Turkish cuisine include various kinds of dry chili peppers that may be roasted and added to grilled meat kebab marinades. Each chili pepper has a unique flavor. The spices are more flavorful when bought at the spice bazaars in Istanbul. Other spices include cumin, pepper, paprika, rosemary, and oregano. Unlike in middle eastern cuisine, he rarely uses saffron. Dessert may be baklava or rice pudding, both of which are very popular at the restaurant.
Growing up in Trabzon, Turkey as a child, Mehmet helped his father with the family-run business--a convenience store--in Turkey. His mother and sister taught him some basic cooking. Since then he has taught himself the finer aspects of Turkish and Mediterranean cuisine and even today Mehmet’s cooking continues to evolve as he aspires for perfection. Having eaten several times at the restaurant I can easily say he has a very refined style and his restaurant is always busy.

In the last 5 years, he overcame 2 major challenges: first, prolonged road construction that prevented easy access to his customers and his business suffered a serious setback; second, an accident where a car crashed into his restaurant destroying the prep area—the restaurant was shut down for 6 months.
Mehmet took me into his kitchen where he stirred a pot of rice pudding that was simmering on the stove. He also had a pot of boiling sugar syrup to pour over the baklava that was baking in the oven. His chef, Santos, has been working for him for the better part of 20 years.
Mehmet has 2 sons who help him run the restaurant. At home, on Sundays, Mehmet cooks fish for his wife and family. As his wife is allergic to spices, he avoids using them when he cooks her a meal.

I came back on a later date for dinner there with a friend. Everything we ordered was served within a few minutes. With guidance from Mehmet’s son about the different items on the extensive menu we decided to have a 3-course meal and it was a sumptuous experience eating authentic Turkish food!

Sumela Restaurant

For starters, the menu offered many choices such as Baba Ganoush, Spanakopita, Hummus, Tabbouleh, stuffed grape leaves, and Turkish meat pie. We ordered falafel. Having eaten falafel at many places I can honestly say these were the best—crunchy on the outside with an explosion of flavors inside. Falafel is a deep-fried vegetable patty made with chickpeas ground together with parsley, onions, garlic, and aromatic herbs. The cold yogurt sauce served with the falafel provided a refreshing contrast. In addition to Turkish food, the menu featured several Italian items so we also ordered mozzarella sticks for appetizers and these were also the best I’ve ever had.

Sumela Restaurant

There was a large variety of entrees ranging from Kofte (char-grilled meatballs made from fresh ground beef mixed with chopped onions, parsley, garlic, and spices) beef, lamb and chicken kebabs, salads, wraps, subs and Italian food.


We chose the Tavuk Shish Kebab—chicken kebabs on a skewer and they were delicious! Chargrilled after being marinated in spices overnight they were perfectly seasoned, tender and moist. Served with a yogurt sauce, mildly flavored rice and “Pyaz” ( a fresh salad with cannellini beans, onions, tomatoes, and parsley) they made for a thoughtfully balanced combination.
Wanting to try the Mediterranean entrees we also ordered lemon chicken with a tangy sauce, capers and mushrooms served with steamed vegetables, fresh pita bread, and the best French fries I’ve had.


Dessert was a golden brown homemade pistachio baklava - Mehmet showed me how they were baked in the oven while he stirred a pot of sugar syrup on the stove. Biting into the baklava I could taste the crisp flaky layers with the sweet sugar syrup adding delicious juiciness to the lower layers. Crushed pistachios were sprinkled on the golden brown top and also in between the layers.

Sumela Restaurant
Sumela Restaurant

We were full but it was hard to resist the homemade creamy rice pudding flavored gently with rose water, cinnamon and vanilla. The bill with tip was about $50 for the 2 of us,

 Mehmet has elevated every dish served at the restaurant... A great experience will definitely go again!

Visit:
Sumela Turkish Restaurant
805 N. Main Street #101, High Point, North Carolina 27262
Timings: Open daily from 10:30 am to 9 am
CLOSED Sundays
Restaurant Facebook

My Interviews with restaurant owner.

About the Author:
Hi, I’m a high school senior. I enjoy traveling all over the world. I’m also interested in exploring international cultural diversity in my community. I interview local immigrants and refugees and share their stories on a Facebook page.
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Han Lao

In quintessential St. Louis fashion, no matter what street you take you will likely find yourself surrounded by restaurants serving various types of cuisine. If that street you took happens to be Hanley Road just off the highway that takes you to downtown St. Louis, then you may find yourself looking at a sign advertising Laotian food and wondering, “What exactly is Laotian food?” And so you walk in to Han Lao, the Lao-Thai Kitchen in Brentwood.Han Lao Laotian Food dining room

You first notice its elegant, modern American decor. However, you also get the sense that this isn’t a stuffy, high-end locale but instead has a casual air to it, particularly considering that most dishes on their menu are under $10. It looks like the kind of place you could go for a quick lunch with friends and then go again for an elegant date night.

That sense of adaptability is an accurate representation of restaurant owner Thom Chantharasy and his family. Chantharasy was born in Laos, a Southeast Asian country neighboring China, Vietnam, Cambodia, Thailand, and Myanmar. When he was only four, Laos experienced a civil war that saw the ruling monarch deposed by Communist forces.

“If the Communists felt like some people were particularly well-off, they would say ‘you don’t need that much’ and they would take it away,” says Chantharasy of his family’s motivation to flee Laos. “Late at night, we crossed the Mekong River into Thailand and just hoped that no one got shot. My parents, siblings, and grandparents were in a raft and none of us could swim except for my dad, so he had to make sure everyone got across safely.”

Upon reaching camps in Thailand, Chantharasy and his family were able to find sponsors who would transport them to the United States so that they could start a new life. His family initially lived in the projects of San Diego while his parents worked at a factory making windshield wipers. “My first memory of America was the pilot of our plane giving me those little plastic wings,” Chantarasy says. “We didn’t have much growing up. My mom tried to make American food to help us assimilate, so when I was 10 she made me a pizza but she used ketchup instead of tomato sauce. I told her that I preferred her Laotian cooking.”

Chantharasy eventually went to college in Tennessee and then lived in Memphis with his wife. It was there that he got his start in the restaurant business, and he had the choice of running a restaurant in either Memphis or St. Louis. He and his wife chose St. Louis, where Chantharasy eventually started his own Japanese restaurant, Robata, in Maplewood. Building off the success of Robata, Chantharasy later opened Han Lao to help his children connect with his culture.

“I started this restaurant with the idea of giving my kids more opportunities to eat the food from my side of the family. I want them to be able to eat Laotian food whenever they want.”

Han Lao Laotian Food bar

The people of St. Louis are fortunate beneficiaries of this decision, as they now also get to experience the Laotian food of Chantharasy’s youth. Chantharasy understands how many may not be familiar with Laotian cuisine, and so he decided to have his restaurant serve Thai food as well. “We advertise as a Laotian and Thai food place, and we use Thai food as a buffer. Most people haven’t had Laotian food, so the Thai food gets them in and then they notice the Laotian food and give it a try.”

Laotian food shares many traits with other Southeast Asian dishes, yet it maintains a distinct emphasis on powerful tastes. “People say Lao food is spicy, but to me it’s a combination of different things,” Chantharasy says. “You can have it sweet, sour, salty, and savory all at the same time or you can have one flavor at a time. It’s similar to Thai food except Laotian food can be spicier and more sour. We go through a full case of limes in 3-4 days.”

This combination of sensations was evident in the Khao Poon, a signature dish of Laotian culture. “If you go to a birthday party, 99% of families would make this,” Chantharasy says. “We make ours using red curry and coconut milk, but there are also different variations of it.” The spice of the curry and the sourness from the lime stand out in this dish, creating a special blend of strong flavors without being overwhelming. The coconut pork broth and assorted vegetables complete the dish in traditional Southeast Asian fashion. Other Laotian dishes include Khao Piak Sen, which is similar to chicken noodle soup with its chicken broth and rice noodles, and Thum Muk Huong, a dish of smashed green papaya with pork rinds.

Laotian Food Thum Muk Huong

Other options at Han Lao include Thai staples such as Pad Thai and Pad See Ew, as well as Vietnamese-style chicken pho. There are also a plethora of meat options, with their chicken skin appetizer and grilled short ribs.

The unique emphasis on spiciness and sourness differentiates Laotian food from other seemingly similar types of cuisine. And while Laos may be a foreign country to many, Han Lao gives the people of St. Louis the unique opportunity to hear the story of Chantharasy’s family, including the sacrifices and hardships they have overcome to get here. “I want people to enjoy Laotian food, and to know that spicy is okay,” Chantharasy says. “My mom said she’s proud because she didn’t expect my food to be good. I told her it wouldn’t be as good as hers, but she said it’s pretty close.”

Visit :
Han Lao
Monday to Thursday 11:00 AM to 9:00 PM;
Friday & Saturday 11:00 AM to 10:00 PM
1250 Strassner Drive, St. Louis, MO 63144
(314) 932-1354

About the Author:
Jeet Das is a medical student that grew up in St. Louis and has lived in Los Angeles and Boston. He can likely be found at a nearby buffet.