Call Me Halal: Palatable Advice Straight from the Streets of Downtown Brooklyn
One of the saddest things I heard in the immediate aftermath of 9/11 was told to me by the wife of an acquaintance. She said, with a smug sense of pride, that her family — in an act of patriotic protest to the recent attacks on America — would be ending their long-standing Thanksgiving tradition of serving assorted meat and vegetable pies from Damascus Bakery on Atlantic Avenue in Brooklyn. It was a heartbreaking statement of staggering stupidity, offensive on so many levels, not the least of which was personal.
I lived next door to Damascus Bakery in my first Brooklyn apartment. This was before Barney’s, Urban Outfitters and Trader Joe’s arrived. It was when that section of Atlantic Avenue was overwhelmingly Arabic, and I frequented the eateries as often as I could, feasting on delicacies from the Middle East, learning some geography and culture and a little Arabic along the way. And, of course, I met many wonderful people, including the family who owned and operated Damascus Bakery.
I loved the food on the block so much that I used to joke that I was part Arabic, abiding by the Muslim dietary criteria known as Halal, aware, of course, that not all Arabic people are Muslim, but recognizing most eateries on the block advertised their Halal practices, but this was back when an association with Islam could be joked about by white dudes, and non-Muslim families still served Syrian pies at Thanksgiving.
Damascus Bakery. Photo by Peter D.
I was reminded of all this absurdity by a recent story out of England where an uproar occurred over a popular fast food chain quietly serving Halal meat. Oy. I’m sure that there are plenty of red blooded, flag-waving Americans who feel the same way as those outraged English and categorically refuse to frequent any place that indicates their abidance to Halal. That’s really too bad, on so many levels, not the least of which is that Halal food is one of the best bets in New York.
The food carts offering Halal prepared chicken or lamb over rice with a side salad seem to be popping up all over the city, replacing some of the dirty water dog stands that were once ubiquitous. This is good because the food coming off the hot grills of Halal vendors is healthy, affordable and delicious. I’ve eaten at such stands all over the city, but my favorite — by far — is run by a kind Egyptian man on Adams Street in Downtown Brooklyn who rightfully claims the title of “Halal King.” I’ve taught in the area since 2007, and instead of getting crap deli offerings or fast food back in the day, or Shake Shack, Panera Bread or Pot Belly Stove these days, I go see the Halal King where my encounter is always the same:
Halal King: Hello, my brother.
Me: How are you?
Halal King: Good. You want the same?
Me: Yes. Small scoop of brown rice. Chicken.
Halal King: Hot sauce?
Me: A little.
Halal King: White sauce?
Me: A little.
The Halal King furiously chops and scoops and squirts and packages a dynamite five buck lunch. The secret is out on the Halal King, though. Often, the line goes on for half a block, snaking towards the corridor alongside the Brooklyn Marriott. It’s good to be the King.
A Halal secret that is still well-kept are the butchers. I go to the one on Atlantic Avenue, across from the YMCA. It’s definitely not a place for the faint of heart, as often times a van will pull up front and men will march in carrying severed legs of large animals over their shoulders, blood dripping across the sidewalk and into the store. Not so pleasant. But the prices are unbelievable, for beef and chicken, and especially for lamb, which has skyrocketed in cost and popularity in recent years. On average, Halal butchers offer the same quality lamb at nearly half of what you’ll pay in those fancy butcher shops with sawdust on the floor and framed newspaper and magazine articles on the walls.
So, there you go, a little Halal advice for the non-Islamophobes in the hizzy.
You: Shukran (thank you).
Me: Afwan (you’re welcome).
Andrew Cotto is the author of The Domino Effect and Outerborough Blues: A Brooklyn Mystery. He has written for numerous publications, including The New York Times, The Huffington Post, Men’s Journal, Salon.com, the Good Men Project, and Teachers & Writers magazine. He has an MFA in Creative Writing from The New School. He lives in Brooklyn, New York. Follow him on Twitter @andrewcotto