NYC's Halal Guys Opens In Koreatown, And It's Just As Good As The Original
Amongst the hundreds of gyro carts sewn across New York City, one cart cemented itself as king: 53rd and 6th, now better known as The Halal Guys. What began as a curiosity in Midtown near the Museum of Modern Art soon blossomed into a sensation, their lines stretching half of Manhattan's long city block late into the early hours of the morning. In the last few years, Halal Guys slowly expanded their market to a number of carts throughout the day as well as a growing chain of brick and mortar stores across the United States. They expanded to Costa Mesa last year, but their new store in the dead center of Koreatown marks their first true test against Angelenos.
Like most new eateries, the store has molded itself on the Chipotle model with a queued ordering system and meat grilling behind the servers, which litter the air with its intoxicating aromas. Instead of searching a random street corner in the rancid city air of Manhattan, the store provides a dozen tables as well as a deli-style counter (plus enough moving space for the expected long lines that will surely form to try the sensation). The vibe almost feels like a 1950s diner, with the signature yellow and red shirts and bags creating a vibrant aesthetic, and large windows to beckon curious bypassers.
As someone who worked only blocks from the original 53rd and 6th cart in New York for many years, I can giddily report that The Halal Guys have had no trouble recreating the tastes and textures of the original platter. They still come in a round aluminum foil platter with a big serving of golden basmati rice without a hint of sogginess, a bit of freshly chopped iceberg lettuce, and a few warm pita slices (pita-wrapped sandwiches are also available). From there, it's on to the two distinct meat choices. The lamb has a charred crisp in its small cubed bits with just a bit of spice to flavor its dried, almost jerky-like bits. The chicken remains the favorite—a mix of shredded white and dark meat with a soft, juicy texture. I personally recommend getting both in a combo platter to mix the textures together.
The real secret to The Halal Guys, which many have spent hours trying to uncover its secret, is their unbeatable white sauce, a mix of yogurt, spices, sugars and who-knows-what to make an addictive sweetness with just a tang of sour. The sauce should be slopped on without hesitation (always ask for more), bringing together the otherwise disparate ingredients under perfect harmony. Their hot sauce hits a particularly spicy note for even the most daring of eaters, so just a dab is recommend (add some of their tangy BBQ sauce for a surprising mix).
Since opening their restaurants, The Halal Guys have slowly expanded a larger menu that includes other flavors as well. Vegetarians can go for their falafel, but its outsides were a bit too hardened compared to the soft, chickpea center, and each bite only reinforced a dull flavorlessness. Pita and a tasty hummus can be purchased as sides, though the standout was their crinkle-cut fries, which had a surprisingly strong, salty crisp (and like everything there, went great doused in white sauce). The baklava was a rich and dense final kicker, though perhaps felt like too much after the weight the platters already add. None of these sides can compare to the superstar, but they do make some nice additions for those in need of some diversity of flavor.
The real test for Halal Guys won't be their opening this weekend, but whether they can cement a presence as a go-to lunch spot (as well as late night munchie) in the fierce competition of KTown. The current beloved for inexpensive Mediterranean flavors, Zankou's Chicken, may provide more diversity, but cannot compare to Halal Guys' singular punch of flavor. The price of a regular platter at $10 (more expensive than its NY store) may scare those who prefer the cheaper taco truck scene, but Halal Guys fills a hole in the lack of a go-to gyro destination. Losing none of its potency in this migration, transplant New Yorkers like myself will no longer crave this distant taste, while a new generation of Angelenos will (drunkenly) stumble into a new craving as this store subtracts another reason to ever join the Big Apple.
The Halal Guys is located at 3432 Wilshire Blvd., Koreatown.