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The Viral Chicken Salad from E. 81st Deli in Cleveland

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The 25-year-old deli blew up on TikTok with attention from celebrities like Lizzo. By Anthony Elder

It’s 9 am on a Monday and the E. 81st Deli just opened its doors, but it only takes five minutes or so for co-owner Wael Herbawi to receive three orders for the shop’s viral chicken salad. I order one as well.

Over the last couple of weeks, Herbawi, his brother and their retired father have worked nonstop, making emergency grocery runs and managing a packed store. They’ve had hundreds, if not thousands, of orders in a matter of days with people scrambling from states away for the dish.

The ingredients are common enough — chicken, spring mix, mozzarella cheese, tomato and cucumber — with the exception of a secret Middle Eastern spice blend that takes it to the next level, a recipe Herbawi’s mother conceived.

Business blew up roughly three weeks ago after a video of longtime boss and friend Tenisha Godfrey went viral on TikTok telling people “Y’all better come up here and get one of these.” Since then, celebrities ranging from Josh Cribbs of the Cleveland Browns to Lizzo, who used audio from the original clip in her own video, have stopped in or sent their regards to 81st Street Deli.

“I didn’t know about it until TikTok but I live close by,” says local boss Selita Kennan. “This is probably my fifth one [I’ve ordered] now.”

This morning, like many, Herbawi works alone. It takes nearly 45 minutes for him to handle my order as he juggles incoming tickets and a growing line of patrons looking for cigarettes or a quick lottery ticket. Everyone is talking about the deli’s social media breakthrough.

When I get my food, the wait feels well worth it. I consider myself lucky for playing it safe and asking for a medium. The chicken salad comes in a hearty pile, layers of vegetables cut thick beneath juicy, grilled chicken. A healthy handful of mozzarella makes it filling.

Then comes the sauce and spices. While the mix of fresh, cheesy and savory flavors taste familiar, there’s a certain unidentifiable zest elevating everything in tandem. Pops of diced tomato add a brightness to an otherwise creamy profile.

It only takes a bite for me to realize I’ll be back for another order soon. Kennan tells me that it’s best to get there early — things get wild around noon and Herbawi mentions a few recent days when customers could hardly walk around each other in the shop.

E. 81st Deli opens daily from 9 am-12 am Despite the recent surge in demand, Herbawi promises to keep prices as they were before the fame.

“Some people would price gouge when something like this happens,” he says. “We won’t do that here.”

216-860-0559, 8033 Superior Ave., Cleveland, tiktok.com/@81stdeli

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