soju sunrise

The Halal Guys

restaurants | December 15, 2016 | By

It’s one of the oldest conundrums there is; can you replicate the success of a much-loved local food landmark on a national, even global, scale? The owners of Starbuck’s Coffee in the Pike Place Market in Seattle found that you could; the experience of Bennigan’s in Korea, though, suggests that it is fraught with risks. We’re about to get another experiment played out in real time on the streets of Seoul. Read on…

[Note: No money, free food or other inducement was asked for or received in return for this post. Soju Sunrise accepts freebies only very occasionally and will always explicitly state if this is the case.]

The Halal Guys was, and is, a food cart operating in midtown Manhattan serving up cheap and cheerful chicken and gyro rice platters, originally to Muslim NY taxi drivers but quickly gaining a cult following and hour-long lines at busy times, spawning copycat gyros vendors, even hiring bouncers to police the queues after a fatal stabbing over a line-cutting incident in 2006.

A couple of years back, the founders hired the franchising company behind the explosive growth of Five Guys to oversee global expansion. The first store outside New York opened in mid 2015 and the first outside the US opened in September of this year in Canada. According to the New York Times, the plan is for 100 restaurants within five years, including in the Middle East and Europe, and the website proudly boasts of franchises opening in Kuala Lumpur, Manila and Jakarta. It’s a dizzying, meteoric rise. 

Which brings us to dear old Itaewon. Back in late summer, a garish yellow shop front sprung up on the main street proclaiming the imminent arrival of The Halal Guys. It’s taken nearly four months, thanks to various regulatory hurdles and one or two hiccups, but The Halal Guys will finally have their Grand Opening this Saturday 17th December, from 11am. So, how does the food stack up? Short answer; pretty well.

It’s very much a fast food restaurant and the layout, seating and tables reflect this. The decor SCREAMS “New York” so loud you’d think Dave Letterman was sitting next to you with a bullhorn.

The basic menu choice is between platters and sandwiches, with various sides and add-ons customisable to taste. The platters are available in three sizes with either beef or chicken, or the classic combo, which includes both. (You can also get falafel instead.)

Served in a tinfoil dish, you get lettuce and tomato, some tasty yellow rice and a mix of chopped beef and chicken, with a couple of pieces of pita bread and a generous shake of their proprietary white sauce and a dash of hot sauce.

Everything is customisable, so you can get extra white sauce, ask them to lay off on the hot, and so on. Although the menu includes additional charges for extra sauce, we were given as much as we wanted with no charge, and there are squeeze bottles of all the sauces available for customers to add to taste, so I assume this extra sauce charge is for takeaway orders only.

The platter was really good. My first visit was with three people who’d lived in New York and eaten this food before, and they all pronounced it pretty authentic, though some weren’t sure if it was exactly the same and certainly it’s a bit more expensive than eating from a street cart on Sixth Avenue.

A generous serving of rice is covered in decent-flavoured beef and chicken, but be in no doubt – it’s the sauces that make the dish. The white sauce is a mayo-based concoction that many have tried and failed to reverse-engineer  – salty, to be sure, but more addictive than heroin. You’ll soon be squeezing this on everything in sight in epic quantities. The hot sauce, be warned, is exactly that – for God’s sake, try it before you douse everything in it, or you’ll be belly-dancing all the way to the toilet within minutes.

You can get fries, falafel and hummus as side dishes, and the falafel and hummus in particular are pretty good. In case you’re wondering, yes, the food is halal. Soft drinks are served American-style – for 2,500 won you get an empty soda cup which you can refill at your leisure.

Size-wise, the portions are fairly generous. I ordered the “New York size”, above, for 11,900 won – the largest, naturally – and though it may not look like much, despite being a big eater I left stuffed. For most people, especially at lunchtime, the regular size at 9,900 might well be enough. You can get everything to go.

Visiting again on the second day of official soft opening, my request for a sandwich sowed some momentary consternation among the serving staff – I get the strong impression that the vast majority of orders here are for platters. For 8,900 won I got a spongy pita loaded with beef and chicken and the same two addictive sauces. It was good, but there’s nothing here that you can’t get across the road at Ankara Picnic for the same or slightly less, and probably better.

Apart from the raised eyebrows at my sandwich request, I have to say that the service on my two visits – usually something that can be troublesome during soft openings – was lightning-fast. Time between making my order and receiving the food was no more than a minute or so. On the flip side of that equation, it’s not really a place to linger once you’ve eaten.

Halal Guys will probably do very well. The restaurant is perfectly situated, the garish red and yellow shopfront right on the main Itaewon street hard to miss. They will be opening until 11pm every night and a splendid 3am on Friday and Saturday nights – this would be amazing food to eat after you’ve had a few ales.

I don’t think they’re serving anything that can’t be found in Itaewon already and the sandwich, especially, isn’t particularly special – but the platter is very moreish and I can see myself eating this more regularly than is probably good for me. If you have had the original in NY and have been craving it ever since, this will definitely scratch your itch. A welcome addition to the Itaewon fast food scene. Now, just give me a Nando’s…

  • Category: American / Middle Eastern
  • Price: $$$$
  • Must try:  Combo platter (7,900 – 11,900 won)
  • Subway: Itaewon Station (이태원역) exit 2
  • Directions: Halal Guys is a stone’s throw from exit 2 of Itaewon subway, just below what used to be Reilly’s Taphouse and is now a Blackstone chain steak place. Walk out the subway for 30 seconds and you can’t miss it.
  • Hours: They open at 11am seven days a week, and close at 11pm Sunday – Thursday, 3am on Friday and Saturday nights.

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