The Untold Truth Of The Halal Guys

For years, they occupied a corner of Manhattan's 53rd and 6th Street and kept the unholy but regular hours of 7 pm to 4 am, making them a must-have for cabbies, clubbers, and anyone savvy enough to hear about them. Their platters were so memorable their fans set up a site on their behalf, known simply as "53rd and 6th" or the "Platter Club," which raved about "the best meal in the City." Even then, their chicken and gyros platters were known for one thing: the famous white sauce. "Nobody knows what it is, but everybody knows to ask for lots of it," raved the site.

The cart laid the groundwork for what is now known as The Halal Guys a privately-held company with brick-and-mortar locations across America and around the globe. In 2018, it even received a shoutout from QSR as the restaurant chain with the second-highest gross earnings after Chipotle. 

"Hot dog is not a meal"

The Halal Guys' story begins with three men who left their home country, Egypt, in search of a better life. Once they got to New York, QSR says Abdelbaset Elsayed, Ahmed Elsaka, and Mohammed Abouelenein earned their keep by working in kitchens and driving cabs, before earning enough to start up a hot dog cart. 

But things soon changed. As Abouelenein told The New York Times in 2007, "Hot dog is not a meal. We figured out that most of the cabdrivers are Egyptian, Pakistani. They suffered too much from no halal," he said. And with that, the cart made the switch to gyro and chicken in 1992. 

Abouelenein told The New York Times that they were the first street cart in the city to sell halal meat, and by changing the menu, the men kicked off a chain of events that saw Manhattan's iconic hot dogs fall out of favor and be replaced by halal platters.

The Halal Guys' cart concept was widely copied

As with any journey to success, the men faced a few challenges along the way. The original 53rd Street location wasn't home to just one, but three halal carts, all colored bright yellow with staff wearing matching uniforms, and all handing out platters of gyros or chicken laid out over a bed of rice, blanketed by a tasty white sauce. The halal clones went by different names: there was "New York's Best Halal Food," another similar cart set up by a former employee, and then there was "the Halal Guys of New York" which set up shop in Union Square. The owner of the Union Square cart agreed to change its name after the original served it with legal papers (via New York Post).

But as the New York Post also points out, the copycarts might have been doing The Halal Guys a favor in spreading the word. Until they all sprung up, halal food, which is prepared in accordance with Islamic law, was a niche dining experience. 

This is what one food critic had to say about The Halal Guys' food

The original menu for the 53rd and 6th Cart lists just a couple of items: a Platter (made with "any combination" of chicken, gyro, rice, pita, salad, hot sauce, white sauce, and BBQ sauce), and a Sandwich (made with everything listed above but wrapped in a pita). It also had a selection of drinks, mainly water, soda, and Snapple.

You can get a bit more variety if you drop by these days though. Vegan fans will be happy to hear that The Halal Guys now also offer falafels, baba ghanoush, hummus, and fries. For those who have a sweet-tooth, you'll also find baklava and the most un-Middle Eastern chocolate chip cookie. While its menu concept has remained steadfastly simple, as noted food writer for The Chicago Tribune Kevin Pang points out, the wow factor is in its food. "Every component on a Halal Guys platter is engineered for high-sodium, high-fat, pleasure center arousal... The gyro meats are crusty, peppery knobs of lamb/beef hybrid, and even the chopped shards of chicken are deeply flavored. Combined onto a plate, it's a gloppy frontal assault of meat, sauce, rice, and heat."

It's that recipe for success that allowed The Halal Guys to spread their wings beyond New York, across the United States, and overseas to Europe and Asia.

The Halal Guys brand is all about the white sauce

Foodies and fans will agree that what really sets The Halal Guys apart is their white sauce. In fact, the chain's general manager Hesham Hegazy admits that it is something of a game-changer because while the recipe for the chicken and rice is traditional, the white sauce isn't. "Customers were surprised in the beginning because they were expecting yogurt sauce, but they still liked it, and they wanted more of it," Hegazy tells Thrillist. "It's not traditional. It's what Americanized our halal food, and what I think popularized it for non-Muslims."

Hegazy admits The Halal Guys are making bank because of their sauce: "We're in business because of the sauce. People steal our bottles and many have tried to copy it, but none have come close."

Thrillist thinks it might have cracked the white sauce code, offering a recipe of egg-yolk mayo, water, lemon juice, and spices, while Serious Eats' Kenji Lopez-Alt suggests a delicious concoction based on mayo and Greek yogurt.

The Halal Guys are growing fast

Whether it's because of their meats, their menu, or their white sauce, QSR says The Halal Guys are growing and they're growing fast. The company has teamed up with a restaurant franchise development firm named Fransmart, which has also partnered with other brands you might recognize, like Five Guys and Qdoba. But it's nothing like the 1990s cart longtime fans might recognize from 53rd and 6th. Standardization means each store will come in at about 1,500 square feet in size, with seating that will allow for between 25 to 35 customers. 

And while there have been a number of corporate-driven changes, there is one thing that Fransmart's founder Dan Rowe says The Halal Guys should hang on to, and that's the brand's New York DNA. "It's got a New York story, so anywhere outside of New York, that's interesting. If a halal concept came from, say, Des Moines, Iowa, I'm not sure it would be as important," he tells QSR