I’m having a hard time wrapping my head around The Halal Guys phenomenon. When the Middle Eastern fast-food operation opened its doors in Tempe last January, you’d have thought the pope and the Kardashians had come to town. Street meat groupies stood in long lines, waiting patiently behind velvet ropes for a crack at food that I would describe as mediocre at best. Had they lost their minds, their taste buds or both?
Of course, this is not about hard-nosed objectivity. We all know that food and our perception of it get muddled with our memories and emotions. I, for example, happen to love the cheese crisp at Los Olivos to a completely irrational degree. I grew up on that gooey disk of deliciousness and it’s still comforting in its familiarity. So, the whole power of nostalgia thing? Totally get it.
And who knows? Maybe back in the early ’90s, when the entire Halal Guys empire comprised three Egyptian immigrant partners and one food cart, the food really was tasty, authentic and soulful. In those early days, the three men made the strategic decision to stop selling hot dogs (ubiquitous in Manhattan) and start cranking out gyros and chicken-and-rice plates for a captive audience of Muslim cabbies, hungry for a hot halal meal on the fly that reminded them of home. (Halal food, by the way, follows strict Islamic dietary guidelines.) One cart grew to five, and in 2014, the company signed a deal with Fransmart, a franchise development company. These days, The Halal Guys franchise has popped up in at least 10 states as well as in Canada, Indonesia, Malaysia and the Philippines – with more than 200 new locations in the works.
I keep this American dream story top-of-mind as I nosh my way through a mainstream menu that offers zero in the way of excitement. Mains include beef gyro meat, chicken and a beef/chicken combo (each moist and tender but seasoned with the American palate in mind), any of which may be stuffed into pita or served over orange-tinted, mildly seasoned rice. Either way, garnishes such as lettuce, tomato and onion are provided for window-dressing, although die-hard fans recommend skipping the salad fixings altogether and going heavy on the two proprietary sauces – one deep red and fiery, the other a white concoction famously known as “the white sauce” that’s reminiscent of watered-down mayonnaise. Why do people rave about this stuff?
Super-crunchy falafel, four to an order, taste like they’re made from a mix, and they’re as dry as hockey pucks to boot. Sides of paprika-dusted hummus and baba ghanouj are better by comparison, but I wouldn’t go out of my way to get them. Then there’s the baklava, little triangles of phyllo and nuts with a stingy application of syrup.
Look, The Halal Guys has no emotional resonance with me, so I probably won’t ever understand the appeal. I’d much rather get my halal hookup at excellent Khyber Halal in Midtown Phoenix or snag quick Middle Eastern eats at Princess Market & Deli in Mesa. But here’s what I know: Hot dogs taste better at the ballpark, and margaritas go down better on the beach. Maybe the same goes for street meat: You can’t take it off the street without losing something in translation.
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