- Halal food can be found at street carts around every corner in New York.
- The Halal Guys is credited with bringing items like chicken and gyro over rice to the forefront of the city’s street food scene.
- The cart is believed to be the first in Manhattan to cater to Muslim cab drivers looking for halal food on the go.
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Following is a full transcript of this video.
Medha Imam: A generous helping of golden yellow rice sits underneath 12-hour marinated chicken, seared until tender. Roasted gyro meat sliced straight from the vertical spit. Packed together with crisp lettuce, tomato, onions, and peppers, along with a few delicate slices of pita, served soft and warm from the stove. But it’s the extra creamy secret white sauce and notoriously spicy red sauce that made The Halal Guys’ chicken and gyro platter a New York legend.
The word halal refers to a specific way of butchering meat in the religion of Islam. But in New York, because of this one food cart, people also use halal as shorthand for a whole collection of street meats, sandwiches, and combo platters, the most famous of which is a platter with only five key ingredients.
Customer: It’s, like, one of my favorite foods to eat. So, I came the first time, I remember, and I ate it, and I was in love instantly. And it was, like, one of the best things I’ve ever ate in my life. Till now.
Customer: And we’re Egyptian, too.
Customer: So, they’re Egyptian. Just feels like…
Customer: Feels like home.
Customer: Yeah, exactly.
Employee: Combination? Sure.
Medha: The combo platter starts with a layer of golden yellow rice, which is made from scratch off-site before heading to the cart. This basmati rice takes the longest to make, stirred for over 45 minutes and prepared in 18kg batches, enough to fill 60 to 70 platters.
But, really, it’s the chicken that takes the most care and attention. It’s always marinated for 12 hours. And although the recipe is secret, Middle Eastern street meats generally use a marinade of herbs, lemon, olive oil, salt, and pepper. The Halal Guys wait to chop the chicken until it’s fully cooked. This way it stays tender and becomes as juicy as can be.
Employee: After we cook it, and well done, we cover up by the pita bread. You will get the flavor of the chicken in the pita bread.
Medha: Next comes the beloved beef gyro, which is half-cooked on a vertical spit. Another secret recipe, the seasoning likely has a mix of traditional gyro spices like salt, pepper, paprika, and oregano. Cooks shave it as soon as the meat becomes a dark brown color, using a mechanic slicer rather than a knife because it’s quicker and more consistent.
Back at the cart, the gyro shavings are placed on the stove and chopped into even squares. Initially The Halal Guys served gyro meat in long shavings, like many other halal food vendors, but they switched to smaller pieces in order to keep up with demand. And finally, but maybe most importantly, comes this question.
Employee: White sauce all over?
Customer: Yeah, just, like, all over the chicken, please.
Employee: OK, no problem.
Customer: Like, a lot of it. Yeah.
Customer: You have to get the sauces, most importantly the white sauce. I personally never asked the exact name of it. But that really makes the meal.
Customer: It’s just white sauce.
Customer: Right. I think we all call it white sauce.
Medha: Carts across the city have tried to mimic the recipe, but The Halal Guys says no other place has cracked the code. Based on the to-go packets of white sauce, this creamy substance is a combination of mayo, black pepper, vinegar, salt, and a few other ingredients.
But one thing we’re sure about: The red sauce isn’t for everyone.
Ahmed Abouelenein: We call the red sauce 911. ‘Cause it’s very, very spicy. I personally have not tasted it.
Medha: What? Ever?
Ahmed: Never. I don’t eat spicy. I cannot tolerate spicy.
Medha: The sauce has a Scoville rating between 100,000 and 130,000, which is over 40 times hotter than Tabasco.
Employee: Hot sauce too?
Customer: Yes, a little bit.
Medha: The cart guys won’t let you walk away without telling you just how spicy it can be and recommend taking a couple of packets to go rather than drizzling too much on your platter.
Customer: I love the white sauce, and I love spicy, so I definitely love the red sauce too. Recommend both.
Customer: Red sauce is hot.
Customer: Next time we’ll get barbecue.
Customer: OK. Wait, there’s barbecue? Aw, dude.
Medha: 30 years ago, there were few halal carts in Manhattan, until The Halal Guys opened one on West 53rd and 6th Avenue. It didn’t take too long to win over customers, particularly cab drivers looking for an easy way to eat halal.
Ahmed: At that time they didn’t find any halal food in New York City. So they came up with this idea, “There’s a lot of Muslims here, why can’t we provide full halal meal for Muslim cabbies?” And it started that way.
Medha: Now street meat is everywhere. But those cabbies have spread the word about the platters and gyros specifically from The Halal Guys.
Customer: They have deals for cab drivers, OK. Like, better pricing. Couple of bucks cheaper or something discount.
Medha: Not to mention there’s even an express taxi line for drivers only.
Customer: It’s unfair, but this is their policy. That if you’re a cab driver you don’t have to wait in the line. You just skip from here and we give you your sandwich or whatever the meal, and you keep going, so.
Medha: Halal street food has become a staple meal for New Yorkers and a rite of passage for visitors. The cart has been praised by magazines, radio stations, and celebrities.
Customer: Just something you have to try. It’s like, you can’t go to New York and not try Halal Guys.
Producer: What does it remind you of?
Medha: Home. Love. Sweetness. Not sweetness, spiciness. [laughs] Oh, my God, the chicken is so tender. The rice is exquisite. And the white sauce? I would die for the white sauce. Just how the white sauce complements the chicken and the spices that it’s marinated in.
Customer: I really loved it. I regret not trying it sooner. Now I’m gonna spend the rest of my life eating more of it. [laughs]
Employee: Hot sauce or no hot sauce?
Customer: Hot sauce.
Employee: Yeah, you have it right now, right?
Employee: All right, no problem. Enjoy your food, sir.
Customer: Thank you so much.
Employee: Thank you. Have a wonderful day.
Customer: All right, thanks. You too.
Employee: Thank you.
EDITOR’S NOTE: This video was originally published in February 2020.