My first experience seeking out halal food ended in tears on the corner of West 53rd Street and Sixth Avenue in Midtown Manhattan. These tears stemmed not from sadness, but from overzealously applying a spicy “red sauce” to six components: yellow rice, pita, diced tomato, lettuce, chicken and gyro. All were neatly arranged in an aluminum container and placed in a yellow plastic bag emblazoned with red letters: “The Halal Guys.”
The East Bay claims a growing number of counter-service eateries offering flavors and forms not typically associated with halal, an Arabic term referring to foods permitted under Islamic dietary laws.
I didn’t realize it then, but I had dined, and cried, at the original location of The Halal Guys. Since opening in 1990 as a food cart, The Halal Guys has spread across the country, currently including brick-and-mortar outposts in Berkeley and Uptown Oakland. Though the now-ubiquitous franchise may be best known for its “white sauce” (a creamy, mayo-adjacent counterpart to the tear-inducing “red sauce”), it has also popularized “American Halal Food,” which the company’s website describes as “a complex melting pot of Middle Eastern and Mediterranean flavors.”
But The Halal Guys is not the only option shaping fast-casual halal. The East Bay claims a growing number of counter-service eateries offering flavors and forms not typically associated with halal, an Arabic term referring to foods permitted under Islamic dietary laws. These shops take different tacks in doing so, but often share a goal of making more kinds of food accessible to more people.
And they are succeeding. Diners are flocking to new-wave halal restaurants like Maya Halal Taqueria, a recent entrant to Downtown Oakland’s food scene. Maya Halal, on the corner of Webster and 14th Street, serves craveable, Mexican-inspired fare while following strict rules set by the Halal Food Standards Alliance of America (HFSAA). HFSAA requires, for instance, that animals are slaughtered by a practicing Muslim and that they are killed by hand, not machine. To ensure HFSAA compliance, inspectors visit the taqueria and review its suppliers.
For Maya Halal, HFSAA certification takes off the table popular menu options, like carnitas and al pastor. Nor will you find Pacificos and margaritas. HFSAA also prohibits lard, which is derived from pork and often incorporated into refried beans. But Lulu Safi, Maya Halal’s owner and co-chef, views adhering to HFSAA as an opportunity, not an obstacle. Safi said that she couldn’t dine at Mexican restaurants growing up, given the lack of halal options, but hopes to allow others to do so by offering a halal-friendly menu developed with her co-chef of Mexican heritage.
Maya Halal’s Mexican-American cooking is downright delicious, whether or not you follow halal. In particular, the nachos ($9.75) are volcanic. A hilltop of chips holds steady under ribbons of sour cream, pico de gallo, refried beans and spice-rubbed chicken (an optional add-on). A green bank of guacamole forms a chunky saddle to the side and cilantro protrudes like evergreens from the magma — here, a tangy orange salsa. You may lose sight of the cheese in the panoply, but you’ll discover it once you pluck a chip and its stretchy white fibers tug back.
The tacos are demure by comparison. The shrimp taco ($4) was a favorite, but all versions are garnished with diced cilantro and onion, with meat nestled in two white corn tortillas. Of the burritos, you might prefer the texture of the Mission-style grilled version. But the wet option, smothered in red enchilada sauce, is still satisfying in flavor and proportion. The torta ($8.50) highlights Maya Halal’s refried beans over a pliant, cream-colored bun that Safi drives to Hayward to procure.
New takes on halal food transcend other genres, too. Rapidly expanding Israeli fast food chain Burgerim has opened several halal-only restaurants across the United States. In the East Bay, there are two, in Pleasant Hill and Pleasanton.
Dogtown Sausage in East Oakland offers halal chicken and beef sausages (each $7) served in house-made buns. Buttery and Texas toast-like, the buns are laudable in their own right. The halal beef dog offers the best bun-to-meat ratio, but the smaller halal chicken frank packs more punch. Unfortunately, the lamb sausage isn’t halal. It’s a shame because it was the most memorable meat of the meal. Its spice generated a lingering low-burn, which can be offset with sweet grilled peppers for a $1 extra.
Additional halal eateries are coming shortly. On June 1, Grandeur, a burger bar with halal, vegan and gluten-free items, will open on Grand Avenue near Lake Merritt. All of Grandeur’s meats will be halal-certified, said a representative of Fresh Eyes Development, which is assisting with Grandeur’s opening. Its burgers will feature halal ground beef, ground lamb and fried chicken, and can include the Impossible and Beyond patties. Grandeur will offer other stylish pub food, like adobo halal chicken wings ($9.50) and fresh and fried veggie plates ($10-11).
Owner Vahid Boyd seeks to make the restaurant as open and inclusive as possible. You’ll consequently find vegan bacon, four types of vegan cheese and vegan pretzel buns. And Grandeur will host community-centric events, including barbeques and a Sunday “picnic basket program,” where it will deliver your entire meal lakeside.
Also on June 1, Crave Halal Subs aims to open a second shop in Berkeley. Currently located on the San Francisco State University campus, Crave will take over the former Chick’n Rice space on Center Street. Owner and manager Abdul Awadalla has ample experience in the restaurant industry; his family runs Nizario’s Pizza, which operates five locations in San Francisco. Though you might not realize from Nizario’s menu, the local chain uses beef pepperoni and sausage, not pork.
Awadalla said that Nizario’s concept for pork-free pizza stemmed from wanting to make accessible an experience he and his siblings couldn’t enjoy: their classmates’ excitement on days when the school’s cafeteria served pepperoni pizza. “But our pizza helped us get closer” to that, he said. Similarly, by using non-pork versions of popular meats, Crave Halal Subs “helps other people who also feel excluded get to taste what bacon feels like,” or salami, that “traditionally you wouldn’t find as allowed in our religion,” he said.
To be sure, respect is due to long-running fast-casual halal restaurants that, for years, have defied categorization. The Hot Shop in Albany has been fusing Mexican-American food with halal meats since 1992. But don’t expect flavors you’ve tasted before. Owner Mohammad Nejat draws influences both from his home country, Afghanistan, and styles of Mexican cooking that he learned while working in the hospitality industry. This prompted him to open his own restaurant, featuring zesty, curry-like sauces atop burritos and nachos.
True to his inspiration, Nejat will encourage you to try his “tropical” and “Cajun” sauces, which can be combined upon request. The blend of honey and piquant curries is particularly well-suited to the nachos with lamb ($7.25). You can heighten the intensity with pink garlic and sweet-and-sour sauces in squeeze bottles found tableside; the latter sauce reminding us of the Westernized-Cantonese version.
Despite The Hot Shop’s 25-year run, Nejat still cares deeply for his customers. Each day, he drives two hours to the restaurant from his home in Modesto. And when we admitted it was our first visit, Nejat didn’t hesitate to recommend his favorite dishes. It’s no surprise that The Hot Shop’s regulars appear fiercely loyal, evidenced by replete “Readers’ Choice” and “People Love us on Yelp” signs.
Nejat shows no signs of slowing down. When asked whether he’d like to expand The Hot Shop, Nejat said over email that he would “love to,” if he can find a reliable partner. With halal taking center stage, now may be the perfect time.
Maya Halal Taqueria, 346 14th St. (at Webster), Oakland
Dogtown Sausage, 5916 International Blvd. (at Seminary), Oakland
The Hot Shop, 909 San Pablo Ave. (at Solano), Albany
Grandeur (opens June 1), 366 Grand Ave. (near Perkins), Oakland
Crave Halal Subs (anticipated to open June 1), 2136 Center St. (near Oxford), Berkeley