[Manhattan] The Halal Guys

The great thing about living in a multicultural city is that you’ve been exposed to a variety of cuisines, so even when you’re travelling it’s rare to encounter a flavour that’s completely foreign to your palate. Assuming, of course, that you’re a moderately adventurous eater and not one of those sad souls who haven’t eaten anything apart from the chicken rice at that hawker stall next to your office for the last ten years.

Having drooled at pictures of the chicken & gyro platter at The Halal Guys available online, I formed a vague idea of how the dish would taste (I imagined a deconstructed Turkish/Lebanese shawarma atop Indian biryani rice) even before I took a half-hour subway ride just to queue for it one frigid night.

My prediction of the flavours wasn’t far off the mark. What I’ve never experienced, however, was how excellently and seamlessly they melded together in this one unassuming platter. I’ll never be able to have Middle Eastern food without comparing it to this one mindblowing experience ever again.

Chicken & Gyro over Rice, USD6.00.

It started sleeting as I scurried back to my studio apartment in the wee hours of the morning, trying to warm my frozen hands on the aluminium foil platter that housed the chicken/gyro and rice. As I took the lid off the platter, the aroma of spiced meat enveloped the room. I drizzled a generous amount of white sauce on the rice, then gingerly dripped a trail of red sauce (online reviewers have cautioned that its spiciness is tongue-melting), mixed everything together, and tucked in.

Un-freaking-believable.

Roasted to flavourful tenderness, the gyro (spit roasted lamb) and pulled chicken thigh were moist and well-marinated with coriander, paprika and lemon juice, amongst other spices. Strips of iceberg lettuce added a satisfying crunch to the long-grained basmati rice, which had been infused with the heady scent of turmeric and cumin. The grilled pita bread was pillowy soft and very good as well. I was glad I’d gone easy on the red sauce, as I tried a bit of it in isolation only to find that the reviewers were spot on.

It was, however, the mystery white sauce that made all the difference – simultaneously creamy yet refreshing. Whatever it was, it was pure magic. I proceeded to pour onto the rice every remaining drop of white sauce I’d been given.

Unraveling the mystery behind both sauces: The spicy red sauce is actually a Tunisian chilli paste called harissa. No one can quite place their finger on what the white sauce is, though. Some argue that it’s just mayo and vinegar (I disagree, it’s not greasy and tart), others Greek yoghurt (nope, too sour), and yet others Tahini sauce (also no, since it’s clearly not sesame-based). I had to scour through numerous forums to make some headway in this – which gave me an insight into the cult following The Halal Guys have amassed – and I think the one that comes closest would be cacik, a watery Turkish sauce that’s yoghurt and cucumber based.

Brisk business.

A number of imposter carts have taken root near The Halal Guys, all selling similar stuff. According to their website, they run only three carts in Manhattan (I think they’ve one in Queens as well), the locations and timings of which are as follows:

  1. 53rd St & 6th Ave “Original Location” (in front of Hilton) / 7pm to 4am
  2. 53rd St & 6th Ave (across 6th Ave from above location) /10am to 5am
  3. 53rd St & 7th Ave / 10am to 5am

The line at the original location on 53rd and 6th is apparently a 30 minute long one. I went to the second location (also on 53rd and 6th), located along the street across from MOMA. Was second in line because it was past midnight on a freezing Wednesday night, yay for the cold. In short, visit in terrible weather if you don’t wanna wait. Otherwise, just join the line – you’ll be more than thankful you did, especially if you’re craving for some oily grub to cap off a night of drinking.

Nearest subway stations

5th Av/53rd St (Lines E and M) for Locations #1 and #2.
7th Av (Lines B, D and E) for Location #3.

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