The setting is Sami & Susu, a small restaurant hidden along Orchard Street in Manhattan’s Lower East Side. It’s midday, just past the lunch hour rush, and the narrow space is empty, save for co-owners Jordan Anderson and Amir Nathan who are seated at a four-top, deep in thought.
Do you remember the first thing you ever cooked?
I used to make buttered onions with white bread.
It was pretty good. I had to be 12.
Gnocchi, made from scratch.
I was nine years old.
I came back from school, and I was like,
“I’m going to make gnocchi.”
I feel like I did mine wrong, now.
I want to go again.
Anderson and Nathan have only known each other for four years, but they act like they’ve been friends for three times that many at least. What’s come from their friendship is the restaurant equivalent of an indie movie: a pop-up. Scrappy, fun, unexpected, and with the kind of micro budget that is typical of such fiercely independent ventures. And like a movie with a fairy tale ending, Sami & Susu is also a pandemic success story.
Back in June 2020,
Sami & Susu was but a roving lunchtime pop-up born out COVID-19, slinging excellent Mediterranean-ish sandwiches and salads on-the-go with something of a cult following. In August 2021, it set up roots in the Lower East Side. Fast-forward to today and the Orchard Street space has transformed into a full-blown restaurant with a playful dinner menu, served in a tiny dining room that’s packed to the gills every night.
For two people who stuck it out during what may have been the worst of times to open a restaurant, Anderson and Nathan didn’t get into the industry for the love of restaurants, ironically.
Not at first. No, Nathan was 14 years old and he wanted a tattoo.
“Not with my money,” Nathan laughs, retelling his dad’s reaction.
Both got their start in restaurants as teens — Anderson, for a kitchen summer job, and Nathan, to pay for that aforementioned tattoo. But it wasn’t until they both landed in New York City in their early 20’s (arriving from Monmouth Beach, New Jersey and Beersheba, Israel, respectively) that things started to shift.
For Anderson, it was a brush with fine dining that did the trick, working his way up from a part-time cook to a full-time sous chef position at Mas Farmhouse, a now-shuttered West Village restaurant helmed by Galen Zamarra.
For Nathan, it was the fear of not being able to pay for his college tuition at New York’s Hunter College. This led him to take on a general manager position at a bistro in the Lower East Side. Turns out, he was good at it, eventually landing a position as Maison Premiere’s general manager. A year later, Anderson landed there, too.
It was for Maison Premiere’s pop-up in the summer of 2018, the Golden Hour at the High Line Hotel, which Nathan remembers (almost) fondly now.
It was a horrible experience for the both of us.
Summer restaurants are the worst thing.
It’s a free-for-all.
There’s no loyalty of employees because it’s a job you know is going to end.
We drank every day.
Uh, night. Let’s talk about night.
We’re not encouraging drinking!
It was a bad summer.
But it was fun in many ways.
Testing experiences forge strong bonds: They became great friends and kept in touch after the pop-up ended, getting drinks, hanging out, and celebrating birthdays at Wu’s Wonton King.
In the months leading up to the pandemic, Nathan had opened his own restaurant consulting firm after helping launch Bar Pisellino as Officina 1397’s (Rita Sodi and Jody Williams’ restaurant empire) director of operations. Anderson, meanwhile, was juggling shifts between Olmsted and Maison Yaki, working 90-hour weeks while waiting to start on a new concept he was hired for.
It would never see the light of day — five months into the job, COVID-19 hit.
“Like everyone else sitting at home, I was like, ‘F***, I have to do something,’” Nathan says.
That “something” ended up being the early stages of Sami & Susu.
“Even before COVID, I was already thinking about doing my own thing. I had a friend in Williamsburg who owned a dive bar called Maracuja, but they had a full kitchen. I told him, ‘Do you mind if I rent the kitchen to do pickup and delivery?’”
The Maracuja owners agreed.
Nathan knew how to set everything up, from the accounts to licensing. What he wasn’t so well versed in was the food part.
Thankfully, he knew just the person to call: Anderson had moved back to Jersey at the start of the pandemic and had no plans to go back to restaurants. He was burned out, but Nathan convinced him to stop by and see.
And so, Sami & Susu began,
with two friends cooking out of a dive bar, playing pool in between R&D sessions, and having fun. Named after a Romanian steakhouse in Beersheba (itself named after a 70’s Israeli TV show) that Nathan and his family were regulars at, the pop-up launched during the first week of June 2020 with a menu featuring sandwiches, salads, and other comfort foods with a Mediterranean twist.
The pop-up became a hit in Williamsburg. Even today, Brooklyn residents still cross the East River for Sami & Susu’s present-day lunch, which pulls heavily from the original menu. It was built on Nathan and Anderson’s family recipes, and you’re sure to catch Anderson’s mom’s chicken soup and Nathan’s grandmother’s stuffed cabbage as recurring lunchtime items.
From Williamsburg, they moved to the Lower East Side a couple months later in November, test driving what would become their bestselling beef tongue sandwich, putting together Passover packages and more out of The Ten Bells’ tiny kitchen. They hustled and started to dream of a space of their own.
They found it on the northeastern side of Orchard Street. The buildout would take two months and, keeping in line with their indie restaurant tune, it would feature Anderson and Nathan in their hardest starring roles yet: general contractors.
We didn’t want to waste millions of dollars.
We wanted something small and manageable.
You’d think the buildout was easy, though.
Yeah, it was not easy.
Really carefully choose the electrician and plumber!
The amount of times this ceiling had holes ripped out of it …
We’d never done it before.
But it’s like learning anything.
Sami & Susu opened in August 2021 as an all-day café with a little grocery to boot. In February 2021, they followed up with dinner.
“I think because we both come from restaurants that operate for dinner as the main act, we were both always going in that direction,” Nathan says.
So, what’s cooking come dinnertime?
Some nights, it’s housemade pasta, with three-fourths of the menu dedicated to Italian dishes. Other nights, it could be what they dub “New York Mediterranean,” like shaving black truffle onto mushroom and leek boureka or crusting poussin with a harissa and honey glaze. They don’t live with any definition. They’re still figuring out the identity of the menu.
For Valentine’s Day, we were selling a menu that was all hearts.
Like animal hearts, literally.
Chicken hearts, duck hearts, lamb hearts, beef hearts.
We called it “Hearts & Bubbles.”
For $45, you get a glass of bubbles and four small heart dishes.
We were like,
“Oh, a couple of tables will order it.”
Every single table who sat down ordered it.
People were so excited!
It wasn’t another Valentine menu.
No one else in the city was doing that.
It was great.
And we had fun.
Which is not, usually, something that happens on Valentine’s Day.
And that’s part of the appeal of dining at Sami & Susu. You could be eating your way through a Valentine’s Day menu composed of animal hearts only. Or be munching on beef heart au poivre, swiping za’atar fries through that peppery sauce (they like offal). Most tables are sipping on natural wine, but there’s sherry, vin du Jura, and Miller High Life, too. The dining room is perpetually packed, mostly for lack of space (they’re working on that), with patrons huddling around close-knit tables or perched at small counters with barely enough elbow space. But no one seems to mind. They’re too busy snacking on chunks of sweetbreads tossed with shawarma spices.
The crux of it is:
Sami & Susu is fun. It’s a small independent restaurant that’s well cared for and helmed by two great friends in total reign of their small but mighty domain.
“We both trust each other and what our responsibilities are with our eyes closed,” says Nathan. “We run everything by each other because it’s important. We don’t have that ego problem.”
“How can you deliver a fun experience if it doesn’t come from a real place of fun, you know?”
Sami & Susu is open seven days a week for lunch from 11 a.m. to 4 p.m. and for dinner from 5:30 to 10 p.m. The restaurant is open until 11 p.m. on Fridays and Saturdays.