The Halal Guys Are Becoming an International Chain
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A gyro platter at the beloved Halal Guys cart. We're hoping the restaurant's food will look and taste just as delicious!
The scent of Halal chicken over rice is one of New York’s quintessential aromas. And now Halal Guys, arguably the most famous Halal food cart, will be turning their mobile business into a brick-and-mortar restaurant chain. The Halal Guys just signed a deal with Fransmart (the company that turned Five Guys into a national chain), to open over 100 locations over the next five years throughout the East Coast, Los Angeles, Canada, Europe, and the Middle East over the next five years. Expect to start seeing Halal Guys restaurants pop up sometime over the next year.
Fransmart CEO Dan Rowe says that the gyro spot has the potential to become "the Chipotle of Middle Eastern food."
The first Halal Guys restaurant location, which has been in the works for quite some time, is set to open next month on 14th Street, and another location near Columbia University will open sometime this fall. Platters at the restaurant locations will be larger, and more expensive, but will still retain the quality of the original carts, as well as the trademark yellow façade.
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Joanna Fantozzi is an Associate Editor with The Daily Meal. Follow her on Twitter@JoannaFantozzi
A New York City-Based Halal Restaurant Is About to Open on Boylston Street
A new York City-based halal restaurant chain is opening in Boston’s Fenway neighborhood, adjacent to Berklee College of Music. Shah’s Halal will open on Friday, February 7, at 1124 Boylston St., in a space formerly occupied by an outpost of the Crazy Dough’s Pizza chain.
Shah’s Halal began life as a food cart in Richmond Hill, Queens, New York, in 2005, before opening its first restaurant in 2016. Shah’s has since expanded to include more food carts and more than a dozen restaurants in the United States, as well as one restaurant in London. Each location of Shah’s Halal is certified halal by the Halal Food Council U.S.A.
The menus at Shah’s Halal’s New York and London locations include dishes such as gyros rice dishes featuring chicken, falafel, kofta, fish, and lamb hummus and. Philly cheesesteaks. Shah’s Halal owner Khalid Mashriqi told Eater in June 2019 that the restaurants’ recipes are derived from family recipes and that halal food is currently experiencing a boom.
“Boston is a beautiful city and a great food city,” Mashriqi said in a press release in February 2020. “We are thrilled to be moving into the Northeast and are bringing the same authentic flavors, fresh ingredients, and competitive price point we are known for throughout New York and California. We are looking forward to becoming part of such a vibrant community.”
Shah’s Halal isn’t the only out-of-town halal-food-truck-turned-restaurant game in town — the Halal Guys expanded to Boston in 2017, with plans to open more stores in the future. Meanwhile, Boston’s own Chicken & Rice Guys continues to hold its own with several storefronts and trucks.
Middle Eastern Cuisine Makes its Move
The Middle East makes up a large swath of the globe, spanning parts of three continents. But the region’s cuisine is often misidentified as simply Mediterranean food.
While there are certainly similarities, the culinary traditions of the Middle East—from Egypt in the west and Turkey in the north to Iran in the east and Yemen in the south—embody tastes and textures different from those of the Mediterranean foods of Europe and North Africa. In some ways, identifying Middle Eastern cuisine as Mediterranean is similar to lumping the wide array of Asian cuisine under the Chinese banner, or various Latino foods as Mexican.
“It’s like saying the difference between lo mein and pad thai is indistinguishable,” says Neath Pal, a chef who teaches international cuisine and several other courses at Johnson & Wales University in Providence, Rhode Island. “It’s ridiculous.”
Many foods are shared by the Middle East and other Mediterranean regions, including flatbreads, roasted skewered meats, and filled dough items, he adds. That in part has to do with history, wars, and cultures rising and falling.
Leila Hudson, associate professor of modern Middle East culture and political economy at the University of Arizona in Tucson, considers the use of “Mediterranean” as a catch-all term as “mostly a marketing decision” when considering the American restaurant scene.
“Mediterranean is a much more popular selling point. People generally understand what that means,” she says.
Tamim Shoja noticed this trend when he and his cousin were planning to launch the fast-casual kebab eatery SKWR Kabobline in Washington, D.C., last year.
“We did a lot of research, and what kept sticking out was how many restaurants represented themselves as Mediterranean when they were not,” he says. “I came to the realization it was a marketing thing. Mediterranean is something that is approachable.”
For Sahar Sander, cofounder of Chicago-based Naf Naf Grill, which has 30 units in five states, there is nothing Mediterranean about Middle Eastern’s signature items, including falafel, hummus, shawarma, baba ghanoush, and specific sauces and spice combinations.
“We are 100 percent Middle Eastern,” he says, adding that the restaurant chain’s menu includes many items he grew up with in Israel—flavors influenced by the cuisine of immigrants brought to that country from elsewhere in the region.
Of course, hummus and falafel have become mainstream in America and are served by many restaurants that don’t have any ties to Middle Eastern cuisine. They are often added to the menu as one more way to provide vegetarian or vegan offerings.
Falafel is typically made with ground chickpeas, onions, parsley, garlic, spices, and other ingredients, rolled into a ball and typically deep fried. Hummus is mashed or puréed chickpeas with garlic, lemon juice, olive oil, and tahini.
According to food industry market research firm Datassential, hummus appears on the menu at 12.7 percent of U.S. limited-service restaurants, a 24 percent increase during the past four years. Falafel is served at 4.6 percent of these units, a 40 percent jump over the same period, while tahini and harissa sauces have also shown strong growth.
Many Middle Eastern dishes rely on chickpeas and other legumes, because “they are very inexpensive, an easily grown agricultural product, and very versatile,” says Johnson & Wales’ Pal. Vegetables, spices, herbs, and grains make up a huge part of Middle Eastern cuisine.
There is meat in many of the region’s recipes, but pork is not one of them due to halal and kosher laws. Lamb and other meats are often cooked as kebabs on skewers or as vertical rotisserie–cooked shawarma.
In recent years, chicken has become a major meat in Middle Eastern street food. “When I was a kid, shawarma was just lamb,” Hudson says. “From my generation on, it’s been chicken [as well].”
Numerous spices and herbs are identified with Middle Eastern cooking.
“We see cumin, turmeric, anise, cinnamon, allspice, nutmeg, cardamom—warm, earthy flavors,” says Kimberly Cornelius, a food technologist with seasoning company Wixon. That differs from the sweet, aromatic spices of the Mediterranean, she adds, and creates a more pungent flavor that is also comforting but not necessarily hot. Some spice-herb combinations, such as za’atar, a condiment made largely from dried thyme, sesame seeds, and sumac, are favored across the region. Thyme and parsley are particularly popular herbs.
Naf Naf Grill—“naf naf” is Israeli slang for starting a fire—touts its house-made Middle Eastern menu, from the shawarma and falafel to sauces and condiments like Iraqi-style amba, which is pickled mango with vinegar, salt, turmeric, fenugreek, and other ingredients.
One of Sander’s favorite sauces is s’khug, a Yemeni hot sauce his grandmother made. It combines cardamom, cloves, cilantro, red chile peppers, and more. “It is really, really exotic, and it is the most popular hot sauce in Israel,” he says.
Like many other American fast casuals, Naf Naf dishes are created along an assembly line. Guests choose a pita or bowl with a base of Persian-style basmati rice, lettuce, hummus, or couscous, adding chicken or steak shawarma or falafel, and then garnishes and sauces.
“We keep it simple,” Sander says. “We don’t mix in dairy and there’s no pork—not by religious choice, but that’s how much of the food is in the region.”
Halal is at the heart of Halal Guys, which began in 1990 as a food cart catering to New York City cabbies. The enterprise now has 20 brick-and-mortar locations, with franchise deals for hundreds more across the country.
The company was launched by an Egyptian immigrant. “All of the recipes we use are those the founder’s family adapted to be more familiar to Americans,” says Andrew Eck, director of marketing. “All of the flavors and spices and menu items are those you would find in a Middle Eastern community or town.”
To make it easier for Americans to understand, beef shawarma served in a pita with lettuce, tomato, and a hot or white sauce is called a gyro—a Greek sandwich popular in the U.S. There are also chicken and falafel pita sandwiches, and all three of the proteins are available in platters with rice, pita slice, lettuce, and tomato.
Eck says the most popular menu item is the Halal Classic, a platter featuring chicken marinated for 12 hours.
Mamoun’s Falafel had similar humble beginnings, opening in a 225-square-foot space in New York. Featuring a traditional Syrian falafel blend, it now has five units.
“My father talked to his mom about the best way to make it, and it turned out to be a big hit,” says Galal Chater, who owns the company with his brothers. “The big difference with our falafel is our traditional recipe and maintaining its freshness.”
Even as recently as a decade ago, falafel was not something particularly popular outside of some big U.S. cities, he says. “It was bohemian food. If your palate was confined to American food, then it was seen as exotic. What has happened is there’s been a shift to healthier eating and a shift to expand the flavor palate in the United States.”
While falafel is Mamoun’s most popular item in sandwiches and plates, there are many options. Other vegetarian choices include hummus, baba ghanoush, and tabbouleh, while the meats are lamb shawarma, chicken or lamb kebabs, and a ground lamb patty.
Mamoun’s also features grape leaves as a side dish and baklava as a dessert, both Middle Eastern dishes that have traveled to Greece and across the Mediterranean.
The menu at SKWR Kabobline—the name comes from “skewer” without the vowels, and kebabs served in a fast-casual assembly line—shows that Middle Eastern flavors can expand. Served as a bowl, wrap, or plate, the base—one of either two rice or three salad choices—starts the process, followed by one or more items among each of the following groups: six spreads, five proteins, 10 toppings, and five sauces.
Beyond the lamb, chicken, and steak kabobs, Shoja says, SKWR cooks with a twist. It has a white-bean falafel that’s baked rather than fried. The pesto employs Persian ingredients like mint and pistachios rather than the Italian basil and pine nuts.
SKWR’s take on za’atar is as a sauce rather than a condiment, combining the spices with yogurt and olive oil to create an aioli. Another sauce is Afghan-influenced chutney.
“I want to keep the flavors as bold and in your face as possible,” he says. Traditional fare is one part of the spectrum, “but we are also trying new ideas to differentiate ourselves. Consumers are willing to try something new if it’s bold and properly executed.”
Another Washington, D.C., restaurant, Shouk, features Middle Eastern food in a vegetarian setting.
“Middle Eastern cuisine, more so than others, and certainly more than Western culture, is a cuisine that relies on plants,” says Ran Nussbacher, founder of Shouk, which is Hebrew for “market.”
Middle Eastern food is deeper than how it is often viewed in America, he adds. “It is flavored more boldly, playing with mixing and matching different ingredients—taking something like pomegranate and injecting that into savory dishes.”
Shouk features pitas, rice and lentil bowls, and salads. While the menu features many classic ingredients, such as amba with the mushroom pita or bowl, there are twists like jalapeño oil with the popular cauliflower offering and ratatouille with chickpeas, tahini, and Middle Eastern spices as part of this traditional French dish.
Some restaurants serving Middle Eastern fare will use “Mediterranean” as a reference point. That’s the case with New York’s Semsom’s Eatery, which is heavily inspired by cuisine from Lebanon.
“We define ourselves more as Mediterranean because a lot of the food is similar,” says Carine Assouad, who oversees American operations for Semsom (Arabic for “sesame”), a Lebanese-based restaurant company created by her sister, Christine Sfeir. “It’s seasonal and very fresh, healthful, and from a similar climate.”
The recipes are derived from across Lebanon and also span three generations of Sfeir’s and Assouad’s family: their grandmother’s hummus their mother’s taouk chicken, which mixes chicken breast cubes with red vinegar, tomato sauce, and paprika and their own wild thyme cauliflower, which features oven-roasted cauliflower florets seasoned with sumac and dried wild thyme.
Served in a wrap or bowl with a base of turmeric brown rice, lettuce, or both, guests then choose one of six main offerings, like the taouk chicken or wild thyme cauliflower, and two flavors, including hummus, pickled cabbage or mushrooms, and sweet and sour eggplant, which features pomegranate molasses.
“Our spices are a huge part of our food,” Assouad says, adding that sumac, tumeric, cumin, and za’atar are the stars. “Most Middle East food is not hot and spicy, even though it uses a lot of spices. But it is very flavorful, so we don’t need to add fat or salt.”
NYC's The Halal Guys Plan to Open 100s of Locations Around the World
One of New York City's most famous street carts, The Halal Guys, is about to go international, reports The New York Times. Fransmart — the franchise consulting firm responsible for taking Five Guys from four units to 1,200 — has signed a deal with The Halal Guys' founders Mohamed Abouelenein, Ahmed Elsaka, and Abdelbaset Elsayed that will take their business from street cart fame to international franchise acclaim.
In the next five years, Fransmart plans to open 100 brick and mortar shops branded with The Halal Guys' logo. They will open in LA, along the East Coast, and into Canada this year. Eventually they will have a presence in Europe as well as the Middle East. Eater NY notes that two non-franchised brick and mortar units are on their way to NYC's Union Square and the Upper West Side. Once franchisees sign on after an official announcement is made on June 19, Dan Rowe, Fransmart's CEO sees The Halal Guys becoming ". the Chipotle of Middle Eastern food."
Here's what a typical work day is like for a Halal Guys cart vendor, who prepares food for hundreds of customers, works until 5:30 in the morning, and even braves hurricanes to serve hot meals
There's a lot that goes into The Halal Guys' famous chicken-and-rice platters.
The Halal Guys carts, which are open from 10:00 a.m until 4:00 a.m. on weekdays and 5:30 a.m. on weekends, have a constant stream of customers lining up to try its platters and sandwiches. The chain's carts are open rain or shine, even in snowstorms and hurricanes. Before the sun even rises, carts are washed, vegetables are chopped, and vendors are stocked up with everything they'll need for the day.
The Halal Guys' first cart opened in 1990, initially becoming popular with Muslim cab drivers looking for fast, authentic halal food, which is food that's permissible under Islamic law. The chain has since grown to five carts and two restaurants in New York City, plus 82 locations across the country. The first brick-and-mortar location opened in 2014, just before the company began its franchisee program with Fransmart.
And according to CEO Ahmed Abouelenein, the expansion is only just beginning. Abouelenein told Business Insider that The Halal Guys plans on opening as many as 400 restaurants globally over the next several years, with more than 100 opening in the first quarter of 2019.
In New York, general manager Mohamed Omar oversees the kitchen at headquarters and each of the five Halal Guys carts. Omar started with The Halal Guys six years ago as a driver, and before becoming a manager he worked at the carts, cooking food and training new employees.
I spent a recent morning shadowing Omar at the original cart on the corner of 53rd Street and 6th Avenue. Here's what the day was like:
The Halal Guys reveal what’s in white sauce and hot sauce
Wildly popular food cart chain The Halal Guys is now offering the ingredients to its creamy, seasoned white and hot sauces doused over platters of lamb, chicken and rice.
"Everyone had their own idea of how we make our sauces now we are pointing you in the right direction without giving away the recipe," The Halal Guys manager Seif Enan tells the Daily News of the new plastic packets of sauce with printed ingredients that have replaced squeeze bottles.
The packets contain soybean, canola oil, egg yolk, vinegar, water, salt, sugar, natural flavors, black pepper and common condiment additives like disodium EDTA, xanthan gum and sodium benzoate, DNAinfo reports.
The Halal Guys food cart operation is opening its first brick-and-mortar restaurant, in the East Village, with a lot more planned
So the men behind the wildly popular Halal Guys food carts are opening their first restaurant Saturday, the initial step in the planned worldwide expansion of an operation that started with a lone hot-dog cart in 1990.
The eatery, a 20-seat joint on 14th St. in the East Village, will serve a prettified version of the Middle Eastern street food that draws lines down the block in Midtown.
It's only the beginning for founders Mohamed Abouelenein, 59, and Abdelbaset Elsayed, 51, who both live in Astoria.
"For me, the (East Village restaurant) is not my aim," says Abouelenein. "This is just the first step. I am imagining something bigger than this."
It's the ultimate New York story: Abouelenein was a veterinarian, and Elsayed was a business student when they emigrated from Egypt "looking for a dream," Abouelenein says.
For the first few years, the "dream" consisted of jobs as kitchen helpers and cab drivers. Then they began running a cart at Sixth Ave. and 53rd St. — now known as "the original location."
Hot dogs were fine, but the pair quickly realized that Muslim cabbies were hungry for a tasty — and halal-certified — bite in Midtown without having to leave the car.
Success came by word of (salivating) mouth. Now the Halal Guys carts nourish tourists and office workers with simple gyros and a "magic" white sauce. The biggest seller at their five carts — three on 53rd St. in Midtown, one in the East Village and one in Long Island City — is the combo rice platter: chicken and rice over salad, with pita.
Some things won't change at the new restaurant, including the 7 a.m. to 4 a.m. hours and the no-alcohol policy. "Most of our customers aren't Muslim, but we are," Elsayed says. "We have to respect our religion."
In addition to the standard gyros and platters sold at the carts, the restaurant will boast new offerings, including a juice and smoothie bar, hummus, tabbouleh, baba ghanoush, Mediterranean salads and yogurt. And the falafels will be made fresh, instead of merely reheated at the carts.
While a rice-and-meat platter is $6 at Halal Guys' carts, the East Village restaurant will offer two sizes: a regular for $6 and a large for $7.Next, the Halal Guys will open a larger restaurant at Amsterdam Ave. and 95th St.
For the uninitiated: This is a thing
The Halal Guys offer chicken, gyros and falafel in platter and sandwich form, but their iconic dish is the chicken platter. Marinated, chopped and griddled to a light crisp, the chicken is served over seasoned rice with toasted pita bread, chopped iceberg lettuce and tomato, and doused with two sauces:
- A tangy white concoction that resembles zabadi, the Egyptian version of Greek tzatziki.
- And a red sauce similar to harissa, the fiery North African chile paste.
The Halal Guys, a network of Manhattan "halal carts," will bring their iconic chicken platter, among other dishes, to the Valley this fall. (Photo: The Halal Guys)
It’s an immensely popular bit of Arab-American fusion that has largely supplanted the dirty water dog as New York City’s street food of choice. And in recent years, it has taken on a certain cult cachet among the nation’s food geeks.
While The Halal Guys aren’t the first or only purveyors of the modern classic, they’re by far the most successful. Popular among cab drivers looking for a quick, filling mid-shift meal that conformed to Islamic dietary laws, New York’s “halal carts” quickly achieved crossover success. The Halal Guys, founded by three Egyptian immigrants in 1990, expanded from a single cart to a network that dots the Manhattan landscape, then inked a deal in 2014 with Fransmart, best known for turning Five Guys and Qdoba into national chains.
Rapid growth and preparations for an international rollout have brought with them a brash new logo and a transition from squeeze bottles to branded sauce packets. But the ubiquitous lines on Manhattan sidewalks would indicate their hometown support has not waned in the wake of The Halal Guys’ expansion.
Whether their iconic brand of street meat can successfully make the transition from the sidewalks of New York to the strip malls of Phoenix remains to be seen. But we’ll soon have the chance to find out.
Making NYC Street Meat: Chicken and Rice Recipe
Photo by Jason Lam
If you are a New Yorker. or know a New Yorker. or know someone who knows a New Yorker, you know about the best halal chicken and rice cart in the city. It's on the corner of 53rd and 6th and on any given Friday or Saturday night, you may be stuck in line for 45 minutes waiting to get your $6 bite of heaven.
After being on my feet all evening, the sight of this line is enough to bring tears to my eyes. I just want my chicken and rice with the white sauce that tastes so good and so bad for you at the same time. This caused me to join forces with my good friend, fellow foodlover, and producer of new PBS documentary show Kimchi Chronicles Eric Rhee to embark on a quest to uncover the recipe for legit halal.
Now, there are a lot of wildcard factors with trying to recreate the ambrosia from that cart. First of all, their ingredients are not exactly high quality I think they just clear the mark of safe-to-eat. We wanted to use high-quality and fresh ingredients. Secondly, the chicken seems to change day to day, ever so slightly, from the cart. Sometimes there are more spices in the meat, sometimes there are less. And then, there is of course, the question of the white sauce. It was our belief that it was a mixture meant to imitate the flavors of a good Greek yogurt-based sauce, without having to spend the money on the actual good yogurt.
So here is my qualifier: Our chicken recipe is not exactly what you get from that cart. In fact, it's better. It makes the chicken from the cart seem over-salted, under-flavored and almost uninteresting.
Yes, that is a bold statement, but try this recipe and see. Our chicken was juicier, had more depth of flavor, and paired flawlessly with our fresh and delicious white sauce.
The best part? As long as you marinate a bunch and stick it in your freezer, you can make this in less than 45 minutes.
So we started by eating off the cart for a few days and compiling a list of ingredients we thought may be in the chicken, while also doing extensive googling. After 3 hours of clicking I was convinced that we should just go to Middle East and buy every spice we could find and then calculate all the different permutations of said spices. (Anyone wanna sponsor me on a trip?) Given the impossibility of that scenario, we compiled the following:
That's a lot of spices. We decided to also use Greek yogurt during the marination process. I strongly suggest this.
We did two combinations of these spices. Eaten side by side with the original off-the-cart halal, I can confidently say, our second rendition was the best. The meat was juicy, the flavors were balanced, it paired with the yellow rice and lettuce beautifully.
There were a couple tricks we pulled. First off, we used chicken thigh meat, which was fattier and more flavorful. Secondly, we marinated our chicken for 24 hours. Lastly, Eric came up with a bangin' white sauce recipe. I wanted to eat that white sauce on everything. from pita chips to cucumbers to off my fingers.
We were able to procure all of the ingredients from a NYC grocery store. If you live in Montana, it may be a little tough to get these, but if you are motivated to try, I suggest spiceplace.com.
So without further ado.
Chicken and Rice NYC Street Meat Style
By Eric Rhee and Michelle Won
6 chicken thighs, fat trimmed, cubed (you can use bone-in, but boneless will be easier to work with)
3/4 tsp turmeric
2 tsp ground cumin
1/2 tsp ground coriander
1/2 tsp ground cloves
3/4 tsp paprika
1/2 tsp curry powder
6 garlic cloves, minced
2 Tbsp lemon juice
3/4 cup greek yogurt
freshly ground black pepper
3 tbsp olive oil
I large onion sliced lengthwise, thinly
Combine all the spices, garlic, lemon juice and 1 tablespoon of olive. Generously salt and pepper. Then work in the Greek yogurt. Add the cubed chicken thighs and onions and let it marinate overnight. You have the option of adding saffron as well, if you want your chicken a little more yellow and savory. Put 2 tablespoons of olive oil in a hot skillet. Add the chicken and onion mixture.
Heat and serve over yellow rice.
ER's White Sauce
8-10 oz. Greek yogurt
1/2 c. mayonnaise
1 Tbsp. salt
1 Tbsp. white or red wine vinegar
1.5 Tbsp. lemon juice (½ lemon)
1 Tbsp. olive oil
3 garlic cloves, pureed
1-2 tsp dill (dry or fresh)
1 tbsp cold water
Mix all together and serve aside chicken and rice.
The perfect thing to watch while eating you new creation? Eric's show: Kimchi Chronicles, starring Marja Vongerichten, Jean-Georges Vongerichten, Heather Graham and Hugh Jackman. You think that's an unexpected group of people to talk about Korean food? You've got to watch it to see how genius it really is.
There's no shortage of ramen places in New York City, and some are cheaper than others. If you want a delicious, gourmet bowl of ramen for a super cheap price, check out Udon West on St. Marks Street in the East Village. This cash-only hole-in-the-wall is beloved by the locals and offers cheap, traditional hot noodles and more.
Slurp up a warm bowl of delicious broth, complete with all the fixings of traditional Japanese ramen.
What to order: The fried chicken kara-age soba ($6.50) or the simmered beef niku hot noodles ($8.50).