Stepping into Salem’s Market and Grill is a bit like entering an updated and less cosmopolitan version of Rick’s Café from Casablanca. While you won’t find Vichy France or be asked for your papers, you will encounter an international eatery frequented by a melange of citizens seeking good food and a welcoming atmosphere.
Owner Abdullah Salem has worked hard to create a gathering place for people of all races, religions and nationalities. Muslims, Jews and Christians sit at the halal restaurant’s communal tables. Police officers, shift workers, lawyers, accountants, architects and construction workers share conversation and talk about the various Pittsburgh neighborhoods they call home.
The employees are just as diverse as the customers. Americans, Somalians, Algerians and Kenyans prepare and serve the Middle Eastern menu to a long line of customers that pause only when the restaurant closes, or business is paused each Friday for midday weekly prayers.
While the Strip District restaurant’s staff and clientele is more inclusive than most locations in the city, its history highlights cooperation between two communities that might surprise some: Muslims and Jews.
Shortly after arriving in the U.S. from Libya in 1977, Salem’s father Massaud began to search for halal meat. Unable to find any certified as following the Islamic law, Massaud sought out kosher meat. As Abdullah explains it, “When Muslims are unable to find halal meat, they are supposed to find kosher meat.”
Massaud’s quest took him to Murray Avenue Kosher, but he was worried that the meat being sold at the Jewish supermarket wasn’t butchered according to Jewish dietary laws. The owner, Wilfred Weiss, offered to take him to the slaughterhouse where the market bought its meat, alleviating his fears.
Massaud began to buy lamb and other meat from Weiss, not only for his family but for friends and neighbors as well. Soon, he was purchasing so much meat that it became difficult to deliver and store.
Massaud’s friend owned an Indian grocery store on Atwood Street that was struggling. In the early ’80s he offered to rent Massaud the back half of the store to sell meat to the Muslim community. Salem’s Market was born.
Anxious to find a use for unsold meat, Massaud decided to begin offering hot dishes at lunch to the local college community. There was only one problem: The store didn’t have an oven. So Massaud’s wife began cooking curry at home each day that was sold in the store.
As Abdullah recalls, it didn’t help the first-generation American or his siblings at school.
“I would go to school smelling like curry all the time,” he said. “The other kids would make fun of us. It’s rough when you’re young and you look foreign and you smell like curry.”
Both the market and the food, which grew to include stews and other dishes when the family bought a stove for the location, were a success. The family wanted to move to a larger site but loans that charge interest are not permitted in the Muslim religion.
Murray Avenue Kosher owner Weiss offered Salem a $250,000 no-interest loan.
Weiss’ influence goes well beyond simply supplying the family a loan on a handshake and the promise that “you’ll pay me back when you can.” He also assisted the market find suppliers for the beef, lamb and chicken it sells and with which it cooks. Lewis Greenwald, another Jewish wholesaler, became one of Salem’s main suppliers.
Abdullah recalls that in the beginning Greenwald would even control the price that they paid for meat: “He was so smart with how he helped us. When the price fluctuated, he wouldn’t charge us the higher price, knowing he would make it back up when the price dropped. In the summertime we had no idea that the price had gone up for meat in the winter.”
As for that international staff the grill and market employs, many are refugees brought to the country through Jewish Family and Community Services.
“Our first trained butcher from Iraq, I believe,” Abdullah remembers, “came through JFCS.”
South Hills Jewish resident Sara Spanjer said she eats at the restaurant once or twice a week.
“It’s a very Pittsburghy place,” she said. “You come here and everyone is so warm and nice. The food is fantastic. They recognize your face and say hi. It’s one of the most authentic places I’ve found.”
Her boyfriend, Darren Watzman, added it’s one of the most diverse locations in the city: “You see all different colors and ethnicities. It’s like the United Nations.”
Abdullah’s next project will be opening a food truck in Oakland on the Carnegie Mellon campus, near the original store where his family’s journey began. In true communal fashion, the new truck is going to be situated right next to the kosher food truck.
“Talk about coexisting,” Abdullah said with a smile. The restauranteur gives a lot of credit to the city for his success.
“I think Pittsburgh is one of the most loving cities,” he said. PJC
David Rullo can be reached at email@example.com.