The Halal Guys of New York now in Manila
John A. Magsaysay (The Philippine Star) - October 10, 2015 - 10:00am

MANILA, Philippines - The Halal Guys, the small aluminum food cart that began at New York City’s West 53rd St. and 6th Avenue, distinguishable by its yellow and red colors, has for 25 years been drawing a line of disciples that spans Manhattan blocks.

Jaime Daez, the bibliophile businessman who has seen the light of “good” food, now brings the NYC dining landmark to Manila.

“I first tried out The Halal Guys in 2010 with my wife,” Daez says, referring to Chris Yam-Daez. “We were brought by a friend of ours based in New York. I was immediately a convert after eating a plate because, value for money, you just can’t get anything like it in New York. It’s cheap, it’s huge, and it’s good,” he states. The same reasons Daez fell for the now-booming immigrant enterprise founded by three Egyptians was exactly what placed them in New York’s competitive and highly-saturated food map. What was hailed as “one of the longest-running and best-known food-cart businesses in New York City” by the New York Times also became one of four finalists of the “Vendy Award” by New York’s Street Vendor Project in 2005, and is growing to over 200 international branches this year. Not bad for a food stall that was originally meant to cater to Manhattan’s Muslim cab drivers.

“I wouldn’t say it was an overnight success. They pretty much built it brick by brick,” Daez speaks of his business partners, orginal Halal guys Mohamed Abouelenein, Ahmed Elsaka and Abdelbaset Elsayed. “This was the late ‘80s when every Tom, Dick and Harry had a hotdog stand in New York, so they decided to sell their own food. And as their success became more prominent, obviously a lot of halal food carts followed suit. But they were the first,” Daez notes.

These, and the clamor among well-traveled Filipino foodies to try its world-famous Gyro Chicken Combo Rice Platter at their convenience were enough reasons for Daez to find a spot for The Halal Guys in the fast-shifting Filipino dining scene. Yet it wasn’t that simple. Originally slated to open early this year, The Halal Guys’ Mega Food Hall store will finally open this Tuesday. “The reason why we were delayed was because it took us a long time to get our halal certification. We really wanted to play by the book when we open this,” Daez admits. But patience has its rewards, as The Halal Guys will be the first food establishment in the country to be certified by the Halal Development Institute of the Philippines, one of two halal certification agencies to be recognized internationally. “It’s really quite unique, and to a certain extent, historic,” he says.

“I found that there are 18 million Muslims in the country. That is basically one-fifth of the entire population, and they are underserved. So we really wanted to serve this largely untapped market,” Daez notes. However, the main effect of The Halal Guys opening here is a gastronomic one.

The world “halal” means “permissible” or “allowed” in Arabic, and is used to refer to food and drinks acceptable in the Islamic holy book of Qur’an. But while we know that pork and alcohol consumption for our Muslim brothers can never be halal, there is more to this sacred word than what meets the palate.

Meat processed in the halal way requires much pious ritual. The slaughter of the livestock, be it lamb, beef, or chicken, must be done by a Muslim. He precedes the slaughter — a quick, clean cut through the throat, trachea and jugular — with a prayer that invokes the name of Allah. Then all the blood from the animal is drained prior to it being processed. This ensures that the meat is clean, blessed, sacrificed for a higher purpose, and therefore should be received with much godly gratitude.

“The great thing about halal food is it’s very clean. In many ways, it is much healthier. In terms of the food quality of what we’re providing, it’s definitely better than what is already out there,” Daez states. “The main reason why I wasn’t afraid to bring it in was that their menu is so simple. It’s basically rice platters and sandwiches,” he adds.

“Everyone who may have tried it in New York is concerned about two things: the gyro and the sauces,” he shares. “We got the exact flavor, the exact seasonings, the exact spice. So, outside the rice, everything is exactly the same,” Daez promises. The local branch uses locally sourced jasmine rice in lieu of longer-grain basmati to keep price points affordable and the supply manageable.

“For many people, what sets The Halal Guys apart is their sauces,” Daez stresses. Purists can relax as the Manila store imports these straight from the source in convenient sachets. For the uninitiated, however, Daez poses a word of warning. “Try to be conservative with the hot sauce. What we normally do is ask people for their tolerance, and if you think you can handle more, just add,” he reminds. The red sauce sets the Scoville scale way off the charts, but Daez admits to adding at least 10 drops to his Gyro Rice Platter.

Speaking of platters, what size to order should also be weighed carefully. “I would say one New York-sized platter can be equivalent to two full Big Mac meals. You’ve got to come hungry to be able to finish it,” Daez explains. His wife Chris admits to only finishing half of a New York-sized platter. So, for her benefit, as well as the rest of the weight-watching female population, he opted to come up with smaller servings. “For women, our small platter might be sufficient. For most guys, the regular platter is sufficient. But if you’re a heavy eater, definitely go for the New York-sized platter,” he reminds. This portion control scheme keeps The Halal Guys Philippines price points low as well. “Our small platters are 40 percent cheaper than their American counterparts, to cater to a wider audience,” Daez says.

So be it the pure gyro, chicken or falafel platters, or a combination of any of the two, nothing in The Halal Guys menu exceeds P500. For lighter, healthier fare, one can opt for the falafel sandwich, which features the all-vegan chickpea patties in a hearty pita wrap. However, the rice platters give the most value for money as they are a complete meal in themselves. Other than the well-chopped meats, plenty more goes to your plate, ready to be slathered with zesty white or hot sauce. “The other elements — the rice, lettuce, tomatoes and pita bread — that’s pretty much it. There’s not a lot of ingredients to it, but everything is sure to be fresh,” Daez says.

Excitement for The Halal Guys’ store opening on Oct. 13 is already hitting social media, and queues matching what they have in Manhattan are expected in their Mega Food Hall branch. “We felt that the new Mega Fashion Mall caters to a huge, diverse market, and we wanted to take advantage of this. Another big advantage is the seating capacity, at 400 seats, compared to a regular restaurant which could only house over 40 seats,” Daez notes.



“But we obviously won’t stop at one store. We’re opening our Fort store in our Fully Booked building hopefully this December. We’re carving out a small space in the ground floor as a take-out counter,” Daez promises. “Here, we can replicate the New York street experience. It’s as if you have a food cart inside the store premises. And in New York, The Halal Guys is very strong during lunchtime, dinnertime, and after midnight. And we can do that there.” It shouldn’t be long before the beeline snakes around the High Street block.

* * *

The Halal Guys first branch formally opens this October 13, 2015, at the Mega Food Hall, 5th floor Mega Fashion Mall, Mandaluyong City. The first 100 customers in line will be treated to a New York-sized Combo Platter of their choice.

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