If you wanted squirrel on your pasta at The Red House Cafe, owner Jimi Zuk would go outside, climb a tree and catch a squirrel for your dish.
That’s what he told me as I was leaving the little Italian-American eatery earlier this week, a joke that speaks to Zuk’s dedication to serving any and all of his customers’ needs. The cozy house-turned-restaurant, which opened in December 2017, features spacious tables and a beautiful bartop all built by Zuk himself to help serve bakery items prepared by his fiancée Joani Schulman from scratch.
In the kitchen, transformed out of a former garage, Zuk and his son make dishes and sauces from scratch as well.
Zuk and Schulman moved down to Charlotte after falling in love with the NoDa neighborhood while visiting family in the city. He sold his hotdog and hamburger stand back in New Jersey to chase the allure of warmer weather, family and the vacant red house on the corner of North Davidson Street and E. 34th Street.
Zuk’s goal was to make his restaurant inviting, cozy and make customers feel right at home with whatever they want off the menu, with no holds barred when it comes to customization. To him, operating in NoDa is about participating in the community, making his customers happy and keeping things local.
“Whatever we can do to be more community-friendly, that’s how we roll back up north,” he said.
Q.C. Nerve sat down with Zuk on a recent morning and talked about The Red House Cafe’s menu, the NoDa neighborhood and the community he joined.
Q.C Nerve: How did you settle on the cuisine for the menu?
Jimi Zuk: Well, I always cook Italian dishes, so we figured let’s make our staple Italian. But then there was other dishes back home, I guess you could look at as a prototype, that were just American, like burgers and sliders. Burgers and sliders in New York and Jersey, it’s an art. I’m a student of the burger. I know it was invented in Connecticut, I know it’s still there. I know you could only get it on white bread because they didn’t invent the hamburger roll when they invented the burger. And burgers do taste best on white toast. It’s the best way to eat a burger. Do it on white toast, it’s a whole new experience.
And sliders, that’s a big thing, I kept those on the menu. And everybody seemed to like my meatloaf, so I kept that on the menu. So we said, “Let’s just go with Italian-American and we’ll offer people a variety of things.”
What about your recipes, how do you keep things fresh?
So what I do is I make everything myself. My son works with me and we make everything ourselves. I make my own Alfredo sauce, I make my own marinara sauce, I make my own bolognese sauce, everything is from scratch. I use fresh spices. We now do a pizza, I make the pizza sauce from scratch. I don’t open a can that says “pizza sauce,” I make it from scratch. Fresh garlic cloves, celery, everything goes in. We wanted to be able to offer our customers home cooked meals in a great atmosphere and we wanted to be community-friendly. Especially now, we’re starting to run a lot more specials and different stuff. I was never one to be known to think inside the box.
What’s the future of Red House? Do you plan on expanding to other locations potentially?
No, no, no. It’s a mom-and-pop shop. I guess I’m the pop. My fiancée does all the baking, right here. She makes all the cookies, cakes, pies, cheesecakes from scratch. We do it right here. She loves to bake. I love to cook. We love our customers. We’re into it because we enjoy the neighborhood, we love what we do. We got great people working for us, the community is wonderful. So, if I was in it for the money, I would’ve bought a Chick-fil-A or something. It’s about customers being happy.
What did you like about NoDa and how have you seen the neighborhood change?
Like I said, I’m not one to think inside the box, I like being outside the box and I think NoDa’s outside the box. I don’t know how much it’s really changed, besides its grown. That’s the only thing. I wish I could put my finger on what’s really changed. Maybe I just work too hard and I don’t see it.