Street Meat: The Rise of NYC's Halal Cart Culture
To some, the food carts littering the sidewalks of New York City are nothing more than street meat. To others, they represent a gastronomic paradise. These two faces of street vending have been side-by-side since the first entrepreneur thought to peddle his food on the city's streets centuries ago.
Historically, while certain food carts simply mirrored the foods available for cheap — like oysters in the late-19th century — others were a reflection of the outsider populations of the city. Kosher dill pickles, a staple of the Jewish deli and most grocery stores, were an early street food brought to New York by Eastern European Jews, according to food writer Tori Avey. Italian residents opened street food stalls in downtown's Little Italy. By the 1950s, Greek immigrants brought souvlaki and pita to the streets of New York, and became the predominant street food cuisine by the ‘80s. Today, hungry pedestrians are just as likely to find tacos, kati rolls, and shawarma on food carts, usually served by someone from that food's country of origin.
But in the midst of the city's long street food history, halal carts are relative newcomers to the scene. Only a few decades ago, "halal" exclusively referred to a method of slaughter that rendered a meat acceptable for Muslims to eat. Today, it's become something more specific and entirely native to New York City. While other street vendors may serve halal meat as Indian or Chinese food, these are not the halal carts we're speaking of. Even the most street-food-phobic's mouth has to water as they pass a real halal cart's hot grill.
What is a halal cart?
Since they first began popping up in the late 1980s, halal carts have grown into some of the most ubiquitous food carts in the city. While New York City doesn't track cart licenses by the type of food served, a 2007 New York Times article cited a Queens College sociology study reporting that between 1990 and 2005, the number of food vendors who self-identified as being of Egyptian, Bangladeshi, or Afghan descent "surged to 563." That's seven times more than the 69 vendors of Egyptian, Bangladeshi, or Afghan descent recorded 15 years earlier, in 1990.
But what is the halal cart exactly? Anecdotally, most carts seem to be run by Egyptian immigrants, but the menus bear little resemblance to Egyptian street food like kushari (a mixed plate of rice, lentil, spaghetti, and tomato) or ful medames (mashed fava beans). Instead, New York halal usually consists of some combination of rice, greens, and halal meat either in a shallow foil dish or in a sandwich, usually with a red and white sauce to top it all off.
While all halal carts might look the same to some people, each vendor adds his own twist to make his dishes stand out from the competition. "I would argue that halal in New York is exactly like taco trucks in LA," says Zach Brooks, founder of the blog Midtown Lunch. Many of those trucks have generic-looking menus and signage but, Brooks says, "depending on the region of Mexico the proprietor is from, they'll sell completely different meats and preparations." Specifically with signage, halal carts do tend to look similar. But there's a lot of room for experimentation even within a menu whose most popular offering is the outwardly bland sounding "chicken and rice."
Brooks conjectures that the dish's "red sauce" may be an offshoot of the Egyptian harissa sauce, and the "white" a spin-off of zabadi (think Greek tzatziki, but featuring mint instead of cucumber). This theory carries extra weight considering the historical evolution of the modern-day halal cart: The sauces bear some resemblance to Greek condiments, with Greeks being the predominant cart-owning group in the decade prior. But then again, maybe not. It seems likely that the familiar red and white sauces are more like a Hollywood blockbuster that was "based on a true story." There's some history in there, but slathered on top is a whole lot more imagination.
"Street vending has always been an immigrant way into the paid economy of New York City," Brooks says. In the early 1800s, it was Italian peanut sellers — in Gastropolis, historian Andrew F. Smith writes the more enterprising vendors created a harsh franchise system that recruited peddlers and supplied them with carts and peanuts on credit. (Smith adds that one 1887 vendor was so successful that he was able to purchase a $24,000 house, equivalent to more than $600,000 today.) Jewish street vendors popularized pickles and knishes on the street and then upgraded to owning delis and other brick and mortar stores. Though Greek immigrants have long had a presence in New York City, their street food boom came in the latter half of the 20th century, coinciding with an increase in Greek immigrants to the United States between 1960 to 1980. According to Brooks, as per the cycle of vending in the city, these Greek street vendors now own their own pizza places and diners. But every immigrant group has gotten their start — at least in part — on the streets.
The fight between brick-and-mortar restaurants and food carts is covered heavily in the media today, but it's old news in this town. In 1906, the mayor's "Push Cart Commission" looked into the "evils" of street vending. The issues ranged from the familiar — street crowding and "additional odors and noise" — to more pointed criticisms like the fact that "this occupation without special qualifications" attracted additional immigrants to New York City. But even the fears of an expanding immigrant population were likely swayed during lunchtime. In a pre-refrigerator age, outdoor food carts and fruit stands were an extension of many urban kitchens, and the commission's "investigation goes to show that there is no special danger to the community from the food supplies sold from pushcarts, for the wares are usually as good, if not better, than the supplies sold in neighboring stores."
While there's no clear "first" in halal cart history (though many have staked the claim for themselves), some cart owners, like the now-ubiquitous Halal Guys, maintain that an influx of Muslim cab drivers kicked off demand for quick, halal meals that could be eaten on the go. The Halal Guys now boast multiple locations, a brick-and-mortar restaurant in the East Village, and are set to become a franchise with locations throughout the United States and abroad. But before it was a halal cart, it was a hot dog stand, says Ahmed Abouelenein, Halal Guys's chief executive (and son of one of the founding three partners). In 1992, the founding partners discovered that there was a huge, unmet demand for quick, filling halal food. So the meat became halal and the food switched from the glorified snack that is a hot dog into a cart-cooked entrée. Abouelenein says that the meat, rice, and salad combo came from a desire to make each platter as close to a "full meal" as possible. Even today, many of its long-lined carts have a special "taxi line" so drivers can get their food, eat, and carry on with their 12-hour shifts.
New York City doesn't track religion among immigration statistics, but the high percentage of cab drivers from Bangladesh and Pakistan (both countries where more than 90 percent of the population is Muslim) gives credence to the theory that cabbies were at least partially responsible for the halal cart's ascension. According to the New York Times, there were 400 Bangladeshi immigrants to the city per year in the 1980s, which increased to 3,900 in the mid-'90s — the sharp influx coincides almost exactly with the birth of halal carts in New York City.
But of course, the carts appeal extends beyond Muslim patrons. "Can food normalize [relations between ethnicities]?" asks Sameer Sarmast, whose blog Sameer's Eats reviews halal food from restaurant to cart. "Of course it can. Just look at those lines."
Halal carts of today
Many of the present-day halal carts operate according to a similar model. The Halal Guys's Abouelenein says that most of their carts' employees are Egyptian. And though employees must apply for the job like anyone else, there's an aspect of community out on the street, with many hearing about employment opportunities through word-of-mouth. Mamoud Asaid, a Midtown Manhattan halal cart employee, says he was hanging around the garage where food carts are stored every night and ended up befriending some fellow Egyptians who connected him with the cart's owner. This is Asaid's second year on the job.
Gamal Hassad, the owner of a cart called Healthy Halal, says that when he first emigrated from Egypt in the late 1980s, he worked at a delicatessen for eight or nine months. "But I prefer to work for myself." He has now had his cart for 26 years, making him one of the oldest in the NYC halal business. Hassad says that it's hard work "to keep [the cart] running and build it up, but I'm happy." He personally works the breakfast and lunch shift at his cart from 6 a.m. until 3:30 p.m. almost every day. Hassad has an advantage over many food cart owners in that someone else picks his cart up from the garage where it's stored overnight and brings it to his corner at 55th Street between Madison and Park Avenues. He's been successful enough to now own two food carts — the other located across the street from Healthy Halal — and commutes from New Jersey to Midtown every day for work.
To set themselves apart from other halal carts (including an impostor cart nearby), the Halal Guys adopted yellow bags, yellow branded T-shirts, and round containers instead of styrofoam. Recently, Halal Guys' addictive red and white sauces have moved from the traditional plastic squeeze bottles into branded plastic squeeze packets.
But while Halal Guys used colors and logos to remind people that their food was different from the pushcart down the block, others have taken a more menu-focused approach. The Kwik Meal halal cart owned by Mohammed Rahman, a former sous chef at the Russian Tea Room, has become a media darling for its upscale take on the usual offerings. His lamb and rice plate isn't made from the usual gyro (a roasted loaf of blended meats), but real lamb coupled with unusual flavors like a papaya puree. Then there's Hassad's Healthy Halal. Instead of chopped chicken pieces, Hassad uses grilled chicken tenders, broccoli florets, and other vegetables that he grills and serves up with salad and fat free dressing. "That makes it 'healthy halal' and that's my difference," he says. And his cart has been this way since the very beginning.
But today it's becoming harder to turn street vending into a golden ticket. Hassad has his own license and mobile food-vending permit, which is rare for a business today. "It's easy to work for someone but not to have your own place," he says. Since the city put a cap on street vending permits in the 1980s, the line to own one has gotten longer — estimates range between 10 and 20 years. While it hasn't stopped new vendors from getting in the game, it's made it more expensive. A business like Healthy Halal is charged only $200 for a two-year permit by the city. The only option for have-nots is to rent a permit (illegally) from another vendor at prices as high as $20,000.
Sean Basinski, director of the Street Vendor Project, a nonprofit advocacy group, calls that an "insurmountable amount of money" for many of its members to pay upfront (in addition to the cost of a cart and food). "The idea of being a street vendor is ownership, but many work for other people because they can't afford the $25,000 [of a black market permit]," Basinski says.
Though groups like SVP are working to change the rules, it hasn't happened yet. Until then, the halal carts may be the last wholly original immigrant-created cuisine New York City has to offer, and it in itself might be on its last legs. Abouelenein's advice to new food cart owners would be not to start a pushcart business at all: "It's a 24-7 headache," he says. That's unfortunate for street vendors and gastronomes looking for their next great meal.