No first-timer trip to New York is complete without waiting in a massive line around the block for a chicken-and-rice cart. That’s why there was all that hullabaloo last year when The Halal Guys launched its first brick-and-mortar in Southern California. It meant that West Coasters no longer had to travel over 2,400 miles to get a taste of the Middle-Eastern dish slathered in The Halal Guys’ famous “white sauce.”
There’s a comforting simplicity to the street-cart vendor’s Americanized halal plate. The Halal Guys' signature chicken dish comes in a foil take-away pan packed with fragrant turmeric rice, grilled spiced chicken, shredded iceberg lettuce and chunks of juicy tomatoes. And of course, there’s the illustrious "white sauce," a mayonnaise-based concoction that’s tangy, sweet and savory — and a seemingly distant cousin of tzatziki. Many fans have attempted to replicate the safely guarded "white sauce" recipe, but no one has ever gotten it 100% right.
“It’s one of those secrets where I’d probably be killed if I knew [the recipe] and shared with you,” says Paul Tran, COO of the SoCal franchise of The Halal Guys. “It’s not really [just] the sauce itself [that makes it so special], but it’s the ensemble. It’s the flavor profile that happens when you mix it with fresh-off-the-grill chicken, fresh shawarma beef and the rice with all these spices and herbs... It just has a really unique flavor profile.”
What makes The Halal Guys backstory also unique is that the three Egyptian immigrants who launched the business — Mohamed Abouelenein, Ahmed Elsaka and Abdelbaset Elsayed — originally started it as a hot dog cart in 1990 on the corner of 53rd Street and Sixth Avenue in Manhattan. They soon realized that if they wanted to succeed, selling hot dogs in an already wiener-saturated market was not the way to go.
“As they were serving hot dogs, they looked on every corner and everyone was doing hot dogs as well, so it was very hard to compete and stand out and provide for their families,” Tran says. “So they bumped heads and they realized one meal that was being heavily undersold [was to] the Muslim cab drivers of New York. They didn’t have a hearty halal-friendly meal available to them as they worked throughout the day.”
Word of mouth spread quickly about The Halal Guys as taxi drivers would tell peers and passengers about the chicken-and-rice dish. One cart led to multiple carts and the success of the business inspired other copycat carts throughout the city. “Now they’re all over the place but we’re still the only one known as the one with the line,” Tran says.
The Halal Guys’ brick-and-mortar locations have been quickly multiplying ever since last year when the business became a franchise, with locations popping up not only all over the United States but also globally in the Philippines. When Tran, who’s also the Senior Director of Development at Fransmart — a company the specializes in franchise developments, first caught wind that The Halal Guys was looking to expand, he decided to jump in not only in an advisory role, but as a franchisee. Tran assembled a team of friends who had successes in the restaurant and real estate industries, and together they opened The Halal Guys’ SoCal locations, from Costa Mesa to Long Beach and Koreatown. Next up are Glendale and Cerritos outposts, and the guys have a lofty plan to open a total of 50 stores from Santa Barbara to the Mexican border.
Tran first fell in love with The Halal Guys five years ago while he was on a short trip in New York. He asked his friend for advice on which restaurants he just had to try. “As you know, New York has no shortage of restaurants, but The Halal Guys was the only restaurant that I ate at almost everyday,” Tran says. “I ate [there] more than three or four times on my trip. It was just love — love at first bite.”