Fast casual dining has been on a tear the last couple of years. After the huge success of places like Chipotle and Five Guys, Poke Bowl spots have begun popping up everywhere, and now, The Halal Guys are going national. The Halal Guys started as a “street meat” hot dog cart in New York in 1990 and have recently been bought out by Fransmart to franchise, with over 200 locations in development, opening up their second Bay Area location at the end of January.
Their Halal platter combines chicken and gyro meat on top of seasoned rice with lettuce, tomatoes, and pita, to build your own flavor-filled destiny bite after bite. I got the small size, which costs $8.99, and is a pretty decent portion with plenty of protein and carbs to boot.
The chicken on its own is a bit dry and bland, not bad, but nothing too remarkable either. It’s chopped and shredded into bite sized pieces so it can be easily mixed with the other components in the bowl, which is good because it needs a little help. On the flip side, the gyro meat is moist and salty with Mediterranean seasoning that embraces garlic, cumin, and rosemary. The beef is delicious and robust with its use of earthy spices and aggressive salt shine.
The orange rice is a little hard, almost like al dente pasta, with a slight oil slick and only a hint of additional spice, but no spiciness. The pita is standard and tastes fresh; it is soft and fluffy with a doughy chew that serves as a good foundation for your personalized Halal-chomp.
What The Halal Guys are most heralded for (according to internet hype) is their White Sauce, which is essentially seasoned mayonnaise, or, ranch dressing without the dill. It’s a purely decadent slathering of fat that helps aid in the moisture and flavor of the chicken, and is a solid combo with the poultry, but ultimately felt almost too rich for this type of food, which I associate more with a yogurt-based tzatziki sauce. It’s got a slight lemony tang and beyond that just tastes kind of “white” – like a blanket of mayo snow on a town made of chicken.
The element of this experience that surprised me the most was the Halal Guys hot sauce – it is HOT! It might be the spiciest sauce I’ve ever received in packet form from a restaurant and there is no better time to use the phrase “a dab will do ya” than when applying this stuff to your food. The sauce is thick and deep red with an immediate heat that coats your tongue and makes its way to the back of the throat. I’m not sure which peppers they conjured from hell to whip this stuff together since the label just lists “spices”, but they did a very convincing job of channeling fire into a “to go” form. Apparently in the original days of the New York food cart the people preparing the food would layer the two sauces on top of the platter, and if you’re going to use any decent amount of this hot sauce with your meat, the white sauce is definitely necessary to provide a cooling backdrop to the heat.
Overall my initial impression of The Halal Guys is that it is good, but not great. Anytime a highly anticipated chain, small or otherwise, makes it to an area with such an elaborately rich food culture like San Francisco’s, it’s hard to convince me that the new guy is really needed. While I would go back if the right scenario presented itself, I certainly wouldn’t put the food above the local chain Oasis Grill, or a fantastic one off spot like the Mission’s Old Jerusalem.