Sassool’s sisters make Mediterranean food a labor of love

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Photo courtesy of Sassool.

Sassool’s Sisters Turn Their Mediterranean Restaurant into a Labor of Love


When Noelle Saleh and Simone Lawson swap stories from their childhood, they touch on all the same themes: love, language barriers and food. 

Especially food.

Noelle and Simone’s father, Mounir Saleh, immigrated to Raleigh from Lebanon in 1976, along with his brothers and their mother, Cecilia, a talented cook. The granddaughters’ early memories of her, living in the duplex next door, feel like details from a Hallmark Channel movie.

“I was able to go next door to ‘Taita’s’ house,” Noelle says. “She would always give me some food or whatever she was cooking. She didn’t speak English very well, and we don’t speak Arabic very well, so it was a relationship with lots of hugs and lots of food.”

Simone nods and smiles, before adding, “That was definitely her love language. She had an herb garden on her porch, and she would pick the herbs, bring them into her kitchen and make a salad, or pita sandwiches or wraps. As soon as you walked in, she was putting the platter on the table. But that’s how she lived. She would not have you in her house without eating and enjoying.”

The family has been in the restaurant business since Mounir and his brothers opened Neomonde Baking Company in 1977. After Noelle and Simone graduated from North Carolina State University, Mounir branched off to create Sassool (the restaurant’s name is an Arabic nickname for Cecilia). A decade later, Sassool has locations in Raleigh and Cary. Simone is the catering director and brand manager, and Noelle is the operations manager.

The menu is a collection of the Mediterranean and Lebanese dishes that Cecilia carefully cultivated over a lifetime. Mediterranean favorites like tabouli, falafel and hummus come straight from Cecilia’s recipe books, along with Lebanese items like pita bread and shawarma. “In order for it to be Mediterranean cuisine, you’re going to see a lot of oil as the base of your salad dressings and a whole lot of produce in your cold and hot items,” Simone says. “Legumes are huge. Any recipe you have, they’re going to throw in chickpeas or fava beans. All of the meats are grilled. That kind of defines the [Mediterranean] style of cooking.”

All the food is served from a walk-up deli case, which seems to work a certain magic among the customers. The grape leaves, sweet potato salad and mujadara glisten in the lighted cases, while the kale salad and autumn root salad introduce bright colors.

“It’s eating with your eyes,” Simone says. “It puts a lot more [pressure] on the kitchen to make sure the salads look correct, as well as on the front of the house to make sure things look clean. If it doesn’t look good, or it’s different from when the person came last time, it’s not going to sell.”

Sassool serves 400 guests per day at each location, with 30 percent of the customers ordering takeout. The “Pick-4 Sampler,” which includes any of the sides and salads, is the most popular menu item. The restaurant is an excellent family dinner option, since it is open until 9 p.m. “Our customer is usually a busy individual,” Simone says. “It’s trendy to be conscious about the ingredients in your food, and with the plant-based diet becoming very popular, it’s all contributed to our gaining different markets of people.” 

The emphasis on healthy ingredients plays a big role in attracting customers.“We get our produce from the farmers market on a daily basis,” Noelle says. “With our business model of fresh food at a price anybody can afford, people can make it part of their lifestyle and part of their routine. It’s not a special occasion to come to Sassool. You can come here daily, and a lot of people do.”

Grandma Cecilia passed away in 2023 at the age of 96, and Mounir is shifting his attention to new restaurant projects as he nears retirement. The sisters now feel fully invested in the family business. “It feels a lot like a partnership now. It felt like a mentorship before,” Simone says. “And before that, it felt like he was our boss and our dad.”

Just like that, the sisters are back to telling tales from their childhood. Simone recalls watching her grandmother overseeing the cooks while she and Noelle packed market items in a back room. Sometimes Mounir would call Simone out front during the lunch rush at Neomonde to work the cash register. “I was seven years old,” she recalls “He would have this stool for me to stand on. I was one of the fastest people on the register because I practiced so much. I wanted to show my dad how good I was at it. It was the coolest thing.”

Noelle is smiling all the while before she adds, “We would spend 10 hours with our dad. I would get $10 a day.”

“Better than me!” Simone blurts out. “I remember my raise, when I went from $5 to $7. I was so excited.”

Photo courtesy of Caroline Stamey.

Sassool’s Famous Falafel


4 cups chickpeas, boiled 

2 tablespoons salt 

2 tablespoons cumin

2 tablespoons falafel seasoning 

6 bunches of parsley 

1 yellow onion 

1 cup of fresh garlic cloves 

½ jalapeño pepper

1 bunch of cilantro

1 green bell pepper 

1 red bell pepper

Canola oil, for frying

½ cup toasted sesame seeds 


1. Boil the chickpeas for about 1 hour until they are soft enough to make the falafel mix. Drain any water remaining after the chickpeas have boiled.

2. Wash, clean and dry your vegetables before proceeding with the recipe.

3. Remove 2 inches of stems from the parsley and cilantro. Remove the skin from the yellow onion and the garlic cloves, and remove the seeds from the jalapeño.

4. Add the chickpeas, vegetables, and all the spices to a food processor or blender. Blend until the mix is very smooth and is like a dough.

5. Warm the canola oil to 350° F in a frying pan on the stove (or in a deep fryer). Dip a falafel mold into the toasted sesame seeds, then use a spoon to scoop the falafel mix into the mold. Remove excess and lay a mounded and packed ball of falafel dough into the hot oil. It will take about 2.5 minutes to fry the falafel. It should turn medium-brown in color. The inside will be soft, but no longer dough. It will be cooked through.

6. Enjoy your falafel with sesame tahini dressing or stuffed in a pita pocket with cabbage salad and pickles!

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