South U Pizza began in 2009 in the tiny hole carved out between Rendezvous Hookah Lounge and Oasis Grill. Now the little-guy pizza upstart is a full-size restaurant. It’s moved next door, and the menu, says manager Midu Alsaidy, “expanded big-time. We have a lot more pizza toppings, like shrimp, fresh spinach, goat cheese, broccoli. And a lot of new salads–we took all those boring traditional ones, like chef and Greek, off the menu.” Instead, you can specify your own mix or pick from suggestions like the “kale Caesar” (not kale by itself–“too dry,” he says, but mixed with romaine).
South U Pizza, Rendezvous Hookah Lounge, and Oasis Grill all belong to Nizar El Awar, who periodically reconfigures his rented span of prime South U storefronts to react quickly to student tastes. Just two years ago, he turned Rendezvous Cafe into a two-story hookah lounge, but now it has retreated back upstairs to make way for pizza. El Awar notes that it was one of the first hookah lounges in Michigan–in fact, “the state of Michigan studied us” when drafting legislation about them. “In fifteen years, we’ve never had a police report or incident.”
“We’re in competition with Pizza House and NYPD, the big guys,” says Alsaidy, who has been with South U from the beginning. So how does he compete? “I challenge anyone to make a better Buffalo chicken pizza. You can quote me on this.” Done. “I’m not claiming to be the best pizzeria in Michigan, because I don’t know. I haven’t been to them all. But our Buffalo chicken pizza is not Frank’s RedHot and blue cheese dumped on a pizza”–which he says was the recipe at one place he used to work. Alsaidy’s Buffalo recipe has become South U’s signature pizza, always available by the slice: “If it’s not on display, there’s one in the oven.” He recites the laborious process for the weekly two-day chicken cook. It has the sound of an incantation, since he’s taught it to so many employees over the years. “We start from scratch. We clean it, filet it, marinate it, bread it, dry it, fry it, then spread it out on wax paper sheets. Then we dice. Then we soak with Buffalo sauce, also made from scratch …” Buffalo chicken wings are also on the menu, but–pay attention here–he is the first to admit they’re not as special. They’re precooked, oven-ready product because “we don’t have a fryer. When we make the Buffalo chicken for the pizza, we do all the frying stove top. It has to be carefully watched, every minute.”
South U Pizza, 1110 South University, 761-4500. Mon.-Sat. 11 a.m.-3 a.m., Sun. noon-midnight.