Mark your calendars for Saturday, Jan. 21. That's the day a sidewalk slice of midtown Manhattan comes to South Florida, with the grand opening of the Halal Guys at the Tower Shops in Davie, 2268 S. University Drive.
In the crowded New York pushcart landscape of dirty-water hot dogs and stale reheated pretzels, the Halal Guys set themselves apart with fresh and tasty plates of Mediterranean and Middle Eastern cuisine. Part of the allure: a famed, creamy and tangy white sauce that is drizzled on nearly everything, including gyros, falafel, beef kebabs and platters of chicken with rice.
The food cart at Avenue of the Americas ( Sixth Avenue) and West 53rd Street has become a street-dining landmark, with lines often stretching down the block. It began in 1990 as a hot-dog cart with a twist: The three founders were Muslim taxi drivers who offered halal hot dogs. It morphed into a wide-ranging specialty stand that catered to Islamic cabbies, but quickly was embraced by all. Similar to kosher dietary law, halal dietary law prohibits the consumption of pork and requires meat to be butchered a certain way.
"Everyone can be a fan of this food," says Shahmeer Alam, 29, an attorney from Davie who jumped at the chance to bring franchises to the region. "South Florida is like a sister to New York. We're a big, diverse melting pot. I see this as a great opportunity."
Alam got his first taste of the Halal Guys six years ago on a family trip to New York. "We stayed at the New York Hilton, right across the street from the cart, and we'd see these ridiculous lines at all hours," Alam says. "I'm talking, like, an hour wait. It was unbelievable."
He tried the food and was hooked, chatting up one of the founders and discovering that they were about to start franchsing. The Halal Guys has grown to five carts and two restaurants in New York. Now, the chain is going global, with more than 200 brick-and-mortar franchise locations in development, including in Texas, Louisiana and Missouri.
Given the national mood, with Islamophobia rising and an incoming president who has talked negatively and menacingly about Muslims and Islam, does Alam have any trepidation?
"I realize the name itself might make an impression, but people should see beyond that," says Alam, who grew up in South Florida and went to law school in Jacksonville. "We're all about quality, delicious food and giving customers a great experience."
The Davie store is small, just 1,200 square feet and 14 seats inside. But it's going to be a big operation, with 52 employees, ready to serve a dense corridor near several schools, including Nova Southeastern University. "It's going to be mostly takeout, and there's a big patio area at the Tower Shops," Alam says. "So it's going to have that New York feel, where you just grab a spot outside and eat."
Alam hired two restaurant veterans, David Miller and Bruce Newman, as managers. A second South Florida location, in Pembroke Pines, is scheduled to open later this year.
The Jan. 21 Davie grand opening will begin at 11 a.m., featuring a ribbon cutting and prizes. The menu includes a selection of wraps, sandwiches and platters, along with sauces and toppings. Side dishes include hummus, baba ghanouj, falafel and french fries. Dessert selections include baklava. Prices range from $6.99 for sandwiches to $8.99 for combination platters.
South Florida fans of the New York pushcart are excited, judging by social media postings. "I CANNOT wait for this," Arleen Carizzo wrote on the restaurant's Facebook page. Wrote Michelle Ursal Duray-Peralta: "Finally! Some real gyros."
Speaking of gyros, Alam says he asked the founders about the much-debated pronunciation. Greeks and many food experts say "yee-ros." But on the sidewalks of New York, and at the new Davie branch of the Halal Guys, they're pronounced "jigh-ros." The word sounds like "gyrate," as in shake and shimmy, which is what some people do after eating good gyros.
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