There has been a lot of buzz surrounding the 53rd and 6th Halal Cart, otherwise known as the Halal Guys. (Halal is derived from the Arabic word for lawful or permissible). There’s absolutely no way of missing this cart. The Halal Guys are nocturnal creatures, operating from 7 pm to 4 am. They all wear bright yellow polos and place your to-go in matching plastic bags, but most striking is the line which is consistent in length all through the night.
Their slogan is “We Are Different,” displayed on a sign on the cart. And they are. While we visited, a man wearing a taqiyah dashed across 6th avenue with a box in hand. He stopped at the front of the line and announced that he wanted to say thank you to their customers for all the support over the years, opened the box and moved down the line, giving everyone a thank you and a yellow totebag with their logo.
We ordered the lamb and chicken combo platter.A ll areas to sit were occupied so I headed up 6th Avenue toward 52nd Street only to find large clusters of people sitting and leaning on anything they could, eating halal food. At that corner they have a second cart set up. About 60-70 people dotted about.
It was truly being at the center of a cultural phenomenon. And with the free tote bags, it was like being at a Halal convention (if only they existed).
A small man in a black sweatshirt was stacking empty metal trays and walked them halfway up 53rd where two more full-sized food carts stood side by side. The one on the left is entirely responsible for preparing the chicken, on the right, lamb (made by a guy who resembles a cross between Joel from Mystery Science Theatre and Bill Murray). Mountains of meat. This is secret to how The Halal Guys deftly handle the long lines. So essentially their operations and influence dominates 3/4 of a square block.
For six bucks, you get enough food here for two moderately hungry people. A thick layer of meat completely covers up the existence of the long-grained, saffron-tinted rice below. Pita is rarely given at halal carts unless ordering a sandwich. Here, you get a nice stack of four strips acting as a border between the lamb and chicken.
At first glance, it appeared the lamb used was ground lamb. It’s actually doner kebab gyro meat they use like all the other halal out there, but here they chop it up a lot more finely than the others do. Not greasy, not dry, flavorful with garlic, oregano, cumin, thyme, marjoram, a very muted rosemary, pepper likely. The chicken is almost all white meat. Again, like the lamb, not at all greasy, a bit on the drier side, which in this case works incredibly well because it soaks in the sauces.
The red sauce is similar to the kind served with Tibetan momos. No salt, no sour, no sweet, just pure, flat, concentrated spice. Unless you’re a masochist, you’ve got to balance this with the white sauce. Every ambitious halal cart strives to have its own secret sauces. As far as I can detect for spices, just cracked pepper and dill, but the base is difficult to pin. Yogurt of course, perhaps a bit of tahini. A little sweetness. Strangely there seems to be a mayonnaise flavor, maybe even ranch dressing, plus lemon or white vinegar to loosen it up and give it tanginess. As per The Halal Guys’ website, “Part of the secret to this delicious meal is in the white sauce. Nobody knows what it is, but everybody knows to ask for lots of it!”