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Restaurant Sat May 10 2014
"Two more steak sandwiches, pops!" It's 11:30 on a Saturday and Nini's Deli is meeting the lunch rush head-on. The tiny kitchen -- manned by an even smaller kitchen staff -- plates up piping hot sandwiches, homemade empanadas, and perfectly-crisp churros at a superhuman pace. From my perch at the "best seat in the house" (a reclaimed-wood bar area facing out the front window) I watch Noble Square come alive-- and the many, many dogs on parade-- as I mentally chastise myself for missing out on this neighborhood gem until now.
Whenever I start to feel burnt out on food built on buzzwords and restaurant groups with armies of publicity writers (which is increasingly often, if I'm being honest) I go back to the basics: those unassuming neighborhood spots where the food is decently priced and the cups of coffee are typically bottomless. However, while I always appreciate a good ol' standby, rarely do I find myself daydreaming about the meal I had at the local greasy spoon (although it's certainly not outside the realm of possibility). When I first met Juan, the one-man front-of-house talent at the helm of Nini's Deli, we bonded over our love of good food and cool restaurant aesthetics. He urged me to come try out his family's spot, and scrolled through the Instagram account that he says serves as the biggest form of advertisement for Nini's: photo after photo of the sun-streaked interior, plump sandwiches wrapped in checkered paper, and mason jars of multicolored lemonades. Not exactly what I'd expect from a typical neighborhood deli. I promised to come check it out.
Upon arriving, Juan greeted me from his post behind the front counter, effusive with enthusiasm about the restaurant's recent renovations and newest menu items. Behind him loomed giant chalkboards announcing daily specials as well as everyday offerings, and a cafe con leche soon found its way into my hands. "My parents opened the business in 2011. It was their dream to open a one-stop shop where people could get prepared food and groceries in one place," says Juan of Nini's original incarnation. "I moved here from California in 2012 to help out with the business after my father had surgery. I soon realized that people were coming primarily for the sandwiches and hardly at all for groceries -- it took a lot of pleading with my parents, but they finally put trust in me and let me do what I knew was best."
The deli is now a full-time restaurant featuring a fascinating blend of Cuban and Lebanese flavors, with some traditional favorites (Cuban steak, falafel) as well as some Nini's exclusives (the "Media Noche," a sandwich stacked with fried plantains, turkey, mustard and pickles). A vegetarian myself, I found myself in awe of the huge array of veggie-friendly options, which take up a little under half of the menu -- there's also a bountiful selection of gluten-free options. Everything I tried had a scrumptious savory-sweet balance: the house-made green salsa accompanying the veggie empanadas, the sweet plantains nestled between layers of egg and black beans in the "Cubanito" sandwich.
Juan has big plans for Nini's future (the name, by the way, comes from a nickname the family has for his sister -- a family business through-and-through), and is hard at work implementing the personal touches that make a place special: think uniform aprons of his own design and a flower box-lined patio to enjoy through the summer. The next time you're looking for a neighborhood pick-me-up, go stop by and say hi to the family that's making some of the tastiest, most authentic food in town.
Nini's Deli is located at 543 N. Noble St. All photos from Nini's own Instagram account.