“Jesus,” a female passerby mutters under her breath as she walks the long line stretching half a block down 53rd Street. As most Midtowners know, the hordes who gather day and night are waiting for the Halal Guys, a chicken, lamb and rice cart that’s become perhaps the city’s most famous open-air dining destination.
It’s so famous that the cart recently announced plans to expand into brick-and-mortar stores in the local area, as well as globally via a newly inked franchising deal. One outlet opened last month on 14th Street, just off Second Avenue, and another is scheduled to appear in November at 95th Street and Amsterdam. The first international restaurant will soon open in the Philippines.
But of course, the success doesn’t come without its share of annoyances. The Halal Guys, which started on the corner of 53rd Street and Sixth Avenue in 1990, have always had their share of imitators. But now, with ambitious plans to expand, they’ve started defending the brand. “The consumers are getting confused,” says Hesham Hegazy, general manager of the Halal Guys.
It’s easy to understand the confusion. The corner of 53rd Street alone is home to three competing halal carts — all staffed by employees wearing yellow polo shirts and handing out plates of meat over rice smothered in a white sauce (mayonnaise with vinegar, pepper, garlic powder and other spices).
The cart that sits on the southwest corner during daylight hours is called New York’s Best Halal Food, and some critics have dubbed it the “imposter” cart, even though its line often rivals that of the one for the Halal Guys. The owner of New York’s Best, Mohamed Abdelkhalk — who’s been on the corner since 2001 — says sometimes customers do get confused, but he’s clearly different. “We try to have a competition,” he says. “We get the food from the same source. They have a recipe, I have my own recipe.”
The corner of 52nd Street is home to another, nearly identical cart founded by a former employee of The Halal Guys.
“We have no problem with someone starting a business,” Hegazy says, “but the bad thing is if someone tries to climb on someone else’s success and hard work.”
Last year, the Halal Guys even had to crack down on a copycat inTexas, run by a Brooklyn transplant who was using its name.
The most blatant offender, however, was a cart that popped up in Union Square recently, calling itself the Halal Guys of New York. In June, the real Halal Guys served the upstart with legal papers. The owners of the new cart agreed to change the name.
In the end, all the rip-offs might be good for the Halal Guys. Halal food, which is prepared according to Islamic law, is becoming so popular and mainstream that if the Halal Guys didn’t capitalize on the buzz, someone else would.
It’s a far cry from 1990, when the cart launched. Back then, street food consisted mostly of hot dogs. But after Muslim cab drivers began asking for halal food, founders Mohamed Abouelenein, Ahmed Elsaka and Abdelbaset Elsayed decided to launch the Halal Guys. Its fandom quickly grew beyond cabbies.
It remains to be seen if the concept will catch on in other cities and countries. One stumbling block might be translating the street-food experience to a restaurant. “I think eating it inside, sitting at a table, will take away the experience,” says Zach Brooks, founder of the Midtown Lunch blog. “Street meat is meant to be eaten on the street.”
How does the NYC halal scene rate?
The confusing Midtown halal scene may have identical-seeming carts displaying slogans such as, “We are different” and “We are the original,” but there’s only one factor that really matters: taste.
The Post convened a panel to sample lamb-and-chicken combo plates from three vendors.
The judges were Sean Basinski, founder of the Vendy Awards; Kristen Baughman, a contributor to NewYorkStreetFood.com; and Sheikh Aftab Hussain, cab driver.
Halal for All, 52nd and Sixth Ave.
Basinski: “I’d say this one is in between the other two. The meat and chicken have a lot of spice. I like it.”
Baughman: “The rice is pretty bright orange, which I like, and has good flavor. The chicken is a bit dry. I like the small pieces of lamb.”
Hussain: “Halal for All, this one was good.”
The Halal Guys, 53rd and Sixth Ave.
Basinski: “The rice is dry. To me, this plate doesn’t have as much spice or flavor. It does have a lot of meat though. It’s gonna please a certain kind of customer — someone looking to fill up.”
Baughman: “This is my favorite white sauce. It has more spice.”
Hussain: “I would say 90 percent of these are similar. The Halal Guys was my least favorite.”
NY’s Best Halal Food, 53rd and Sixth Ave.
Basinski: “The rice was nice and moist. The chicken and lamb are succulent, and this looks like real chunks of chicken. I like the mix of sauces.”
Baughman: “The lamb tastes different from the others. It’s spicier, sweeter. I don’t like my lamb sweet.”
Hussain: “The best one, with the chicken and lamb flavors. If it’s too spicy, I like the sauce, but sometimes I don’t need it.”
Originally published on http://nypost.com