The Halal Guys Seek To Charm Houston With Meaty Simplicity & Secret Sauces—Updated
The storefront spinoffs of The Halal Guys, the New York food cart that started in 1990, are being quickly replicated across the United States. There are now 39 locations. The first Houston store that opened on Shepherd near Highway 59 in February 2016 induced foodie mania that resulted in long lines and two-hour waits. That thankfully died down after the first few weekends.
Much more quietly, a second location opened in November at 10111 Louetta. It’s housed in the same shopping center as Whole Foods, just down the street from Vintage Park. A third location should be announced any day now, although it’s unclear if it’s the George Bush Intercontinental Airport one that has been teased for quite some time. Update, 4/3/2017: According to Culturemap, the new location will be in the Westchase district.
If fast-casual restaurants could run on enthusiasm alone, our host, general manager Tarek Alshalkmi, could drive it singlehandedly. “It’s such a beautiful story,” he enthused. “People love it and what’s so amazing is that the menu is simple—just rice, chicken, beef. That’s what they sell on the cart—and a little lettuce and white sauce.”
That white sauce is part of The Halal Guys’ mystique, as is the red, which packs substantial heat. The exact recipes of each are a long-held secret, but some of the ingredients had to be revealed when it was made available in packets for to-go orders. The white sauce is a seasoned mayonnaise. The hot sauce is a fairly basic recipe, although exactly which ground red chili is used for it is still a mystery.
If you like things spicy, you’ll have to specify how many stripes of the hot sauce you want laid across your food order, otherwise you’ll get a very cautious dose that’s only about an inch long. I asked for three stripes and got raised eyebrows. “No, really,” I reassured. “This is Texas.”
The limited menu helps ensure consistency across locations and makes ordering easy. There’s the chicken and/or beef platters, gyros, falafel, hummus, baba ganouj (their spelling), French fries, baklava and sodas. That’s about it.
Portion sizes are generous, especially when considering the modest prices. A large platter, for example, is $8.49 and it’s easy to stretch it to two meals. The falafel at the Louetta location didn’t measure up to the warm, flavorful ones at the Shepherd one, for some reason, but the chicken and beef platter was just I remembered.
I get asked all the time if The Halal Guys storefront locations are as good as the carts in New York City. No, they are not—nor can they be. Environment is part of the eating experience. The best Wagyu ribeye steak can be prepared, but if the diner has to consume it inside a McDonald’s, the experience won’t be as good as if it was enjoyed in a luxurious steakhouse. There is nothing like standing on a New York sidewalk with the natives on a cold day and having the wait rewarded with a steaming container that wafts meaty aromas. However, we do not have The Halal Guys food carts in Houston. If you want beef and chicken New York City-style, the storefronts are the closest you’re going to get without buying a plane ticket—and what they offer is not a bad deal.
Phaedra Cook has written about Houston’s restaurant and bar scene since 2010. She was a regular contributor to My Table magazine (now closed) and was the lead restaurant critic for the Houston Press for two years, eventually being promoted to food editor. Cook founded Houston Food Finder in November 2016 and has been its editor and publisher ever since.