The sound of metal on metal reverberating off the walls is deafening – thwack thwack thwack, thwack thwack thwack. Two Halal Guys employees are chopping milky-white chicken thighs sizzling on the griddle, both with a butcher knife in each fist. It’s noon on a warm weekday in April, and they’re preparing for the lunchtime rush. The place is steady but nowhere near full.
The arrival of Halal Guys’ first West Coast location, in Costa Mesa, last year inspired rabid lines of tweeting foodies for months afterward. The lines were so long and unending, in fact, you’d think you were still on the corner of 53rd Street and Sixth Avenue in New York City, where the cult-famous cart has been serving throngs of late-night fans since it was started as an anti-hot-dog stand by an Egyptian immigrant in 1990 (someone was stabbed for cutting the line in 2006).
But you’d never know how much Halal Guys disrupted the New York street-food scene or what a big deal it is to have one in Southern California by walking into the Long Beach location, its second on the West Coast, which stands between a Chipotle and a Wing Stop a few blocks from Cal State Long Beach. There is rarely a line more than a few deep, and the simple chicken-or-beef, platter-or-sandwich ordering system means to the uninitiated, Halal Guys might as well be any other cheap Middle Eastern-inspired joint trying to capitalize on the hungry, college masses.
This is how good food should be anyway – not a line to wait in or a Snapchat for your story or a bragging right – just another meal that’s a normal part of everyday life.
And Halal Guys is good — damn good. The beef (started on the spit and finished on the grill) is lightly spiced and heavily addictive. The pitas (which manage to hold an explosive amount of fillings) are thick and pillowy. The sauces (a creamy herbed white mayo and a spicy hot sauce) are applied liberally. The portions are always enough to take some home for a round two.
I can see why it quickly expanded into a mini empire of metallic street carts across the city, competing against —and slaying — the famous steamed NYC hot dog. And I can see why it was a prime candidate for franchising, which it did through the same company that caused the rocketing growth of Qdoba and Five Guys.
The interior of the restaurants resembles a street cart gone room-size; a photo of the original cart and its infamous line sits on the wall. Costs are (surprisingly?) a little more than they would be if you were in Manhattan, but it’s a small price to pay for the luxury of eating at a pretty adept re-creation of a New York institution in the middle of Long Beach’s suburban sprawl.
In addition to the two classic menu items – the platter and the sandwich – there are also some franchise-only additions: crispy falafel, silky hummus, crinkle-cut French fries and baklava for dessert.
The restaurant’s expansion deal will bring 48 more Halal Guys to the region (10 of them in the next year), which is good news for the few obsessed foodies I caught driving from LA to pick up to-go orders from the Long Beach location. But even after the planned openings in Koreatown, San Francisco, Las Vegas and the Philippines spawn their own unending lines, Long Beach’s Halal Guys might still be the chillest one yet.
Halal Guys, 1804 Ximeno Ave., Long Beach, (562) 986-9038; halalornothing.com.