I'm in a line at a strip mall in Costa Mesa for the Halal Guys--the first West Coast branch of the beloved New York City food cart--and the closer I inch toward the door, the more intense the smell gets. The aroma of chicken thighs sizzling on the flattop griddle is intoxicating. I rolled into the parking lot about an hour earlier, at 10:15 a.m., thinking I'd surely be the first person. I was wrong. Even though it was still 45 minutes before the place opened, there were already 15 people when I got here, milling around the entrance. That was when a guy with a crew cut and a deck of cards in his hand decided it was time to form a formal queue.
"When more people start coming, it'll be easier if we're already in a line," he told the group. We nodded and self-organized by order of arrival. Mr. Crew Cut, having done his duty in instituting order, continued his card game with a friend and waited in his place with the rest of us.
Around 11:15 a.m., the queue moves, slowly. The restaurant barely opened five minutes ago, and the line is 50 bodies deep--and growing. The Asian guy directly behind me is now chatting with the Latino guy behind him. They don't know each other, but they're comparing notes about the place. The Latino guy said he'd first encountered Halal Guys on a visit to New York a few months ago and was hooked. "There's just something about that white sauce and eating it all out there on the street," he says. The Asian guy admits he'd never heard of the place until he saw it on Facebook and read about the line that wrapped around the building and lasted four hours.
Looking around, I realize more social-media posts are being made at this very moment. People are posing for selfies and taking pictures of the line. As no one mounts an expedition to Everest without bragging about it, it seems no one goes to Halal Guys without posting it on Instagram, Facebook and Twitter. This, I gather, is how the place--which is not unlike any other joint that serves pita-wrapped meat shaved off a spinning cone--has gone viral. It's certainly not because everyone in line is a New York transplant or an observant Muslim. In fact, a dominant majority of Halal Guys' customers are hipster Asians, mostly in their twenties--the same kind of early adopters I saw lining up for Kogi a few years ago, a group that's always the first to answer the call of the foodie.
Now I'm inside the restaurant, and the smell of chicken is all-enveloping. One of the cooks hacks the snow-white thighs into smaller pieces on the griddle, driving a wide, steel spatula straight down into the meat repeatedly with a clack-clack-clack. A second worker shaves long strips from a twirling tower of gyro meat, adding it to a massive heap already searing on another section of the griddle. Meanwhile, the counter person uses tongs to grab a wad of cooked chicken from a steaming mountain whose summit is covered by pita bread. He piles the chicken into a foil container for my Halal Classic, the plate everyone orders: diced tomatoes, lettuce, orange-tinted rice, some pita bread triangles, the chicken and gyro meat. To it, I ask to add some craggle-crusted falafels that just came off the fryer.
My plate is pushed to the saucing station, where yet another attendant zigzags the entire surface with white sauce from a squirt bottle.
But with this, he's a little more conservative, applying just a dab on the side.
"More!" I tell him.
"Are you sure?"
"Yes! And what else you got back there? Put it all on!"
When the plate re-emerges at the cashier, I notice it's now topped with pitted olives, onions, green peppers and pickled jalapeños. It looked, well . . . messy.
On my first bite, I finally got the appeal. Even at $8.95 (more than what the original Halal Guys street cart charges in NYC), it's a massive amount of food that, for me, became two meals.
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And though there may be nothing special with its most ballyhooed components--the chicken is fine, but not extraordinary, and the white sauce tastes almost indistinguishable from ranch dressing--I understood how the sum of it all (the rice, the grease, the intense spicing of the gyro, the radioactive hot sauce that left me panting) can breed loyalists.
Before I leave, I take a picture of the dish, then post it and the selfie I snapped in line on Facebook.
The Halal Guys, 3033 Bristol St., Ste. E, Costa Mesa, (714) 850-1080; thehalalguys.com. Open daily, 11 a.m.-11 p.m. Regular platter, $8.95; small, $7.95. No alcohol.