On a Monday in the fall, a line formed outside Mr. Chang, a new halal Chinese restaurant from Amani Hospitality Group, serving kung pao chicken and chile lamb in Astoria.
“I’ve never had duck before,” said one woman to her friends, referring to the Beijing duck (aka Peking duck) making its rounds on Muslim TikTok and Instagram. It came with the customary fixings: moo shu wrappers, cucumber and scallion slivers, and plum sauce. It’s one of the only halal Beijing ducks in New York.
Mr. Chang represents a new generation of halal restaurants cropping up across the city. Run by the children of Muslim immigrants fulfilling their own cravings, these restaurants are reminders that when it comes to halal food, food cart chicken over rice is just the tip of the iceberg.
Halal food is birria tacos at Birria LES in the Lower East Side. It’s spaghetti and meatballs at Fatta Mano in Bay Ridge. It’s chicken and waffles at Namkeen in Williamsburg. It’s bulgogi at Syko in Park Slope. Even restaurants that aren’t Muslim-owned are embracing halal meat, including Hot Peppers, a halal version of the assembly-line Mexican chain; Burmese Bites in Elmhurst; and Dave’s Hot Chicken locations around the country that have halal items on the menu.
Because halal preparation starts before the meat enters the restaurant — guiding how an animal is slaughtered, raised, and fed — this restaurant boom points to changes in how restaurants get halal meats. The U.S. halal food and beverage market was valued at $17.7 billion in 2020, with growth — annual and projected — every year until 2030, according to Grand View Research. The growing consumer demand stems from the growth of Muslim immigrant families and non-Muslims drawn to ethical and healthy consumerism, per several studies.
Amani Group is one of the most prolific examples of the growth of halal restaurants in New York, having started with Nur Thai in Rego Park in 2015. Next came Aroma, a modern Indian eatery, and Sugar N Coal, a dessert and shisha lounge that opened in Rego Park in 2017. Lulu Asian Cuisine opened in Ozone Park in 2019 with ramen and Korean fried chicken sandwiches, followed by the Gully in Astoria, a desi spot selling chicken tikka masala mac and cheese. Fast forward to 2021, when Birria Mania opened in Bay Ridge, with its midnight munchie-type concoctions of birria everything, followed by Mr. Chang in Astoria. A higher-end Nur Thai has just opened in Astoria earlier this year.
Amani is also providing 100 percent zabiha, or hand-slaughtered, halal meat, which meets the requirements for the strictest adherence to Islamic dietary law. (An animal raised in a permissible way that endures minimal harm in the slaughter, during which the butcher should invoke the name of Allah.) It speaks to the growing foothold of Muslims in New York and the economic diversity – an intersection of class, income, and religious diversity – their communities are infusing into the New York economy.
Amani founders, Razib Hasan from Ozone Park, Queens, and Jashim Ullah, born and raised in Parkchester, Bronx, were club kids. Around 2013, they threw dance parties for desi 20-somethings, and between the two of them, they had run the gamut of restaurant jobs, from delivery guy to server. Ullah was a manager at Applebee’s in Astoria; Hasan helped open venues like Catch and Dream Downtown for nightlife giants including Tao Group and Catch Hospitality Group.
Of all the cuisines they’d spent their whole lives picking off the halal menu items from — dishes solely using seafood and vegetables — they loved Thai food. “It’s that flavor profile,” says Ullah. “The spice levels, the sweet, sour, salty.”
They tucked away money to open their own restaurant. In 2013, they came across an old laundromat space that had been vacant in Rego Park. It’s where they opened Nur Thai — named after Hasan’s mom — which would end up a destination for locals and out-of-town Muslims. In June 2014, Hasan quit his job, and they put the down payment on 63-32 Woodhaven Boulevard.
Their hunch proved right, and social media hype from the likes of MuslimFoodies on Instagram and TikTok followed and translated into hard dollars. But they, like all Muslim restaurants, faced sourcing challenges. Halal restaurateurs were getting their meat from local suppliers and viveros (live poultry shops) like Madani and As-Salaam in Queens, Macca in the Bronx, ENA Meatpacking in New Jersey, and Leader Meat in Pennsylvania. Meat supplier Pat LaFrieda was also in the mix.
What’s fostered the growth of halal cuisine are businesses that help them along: In 2018, Hal & Al — a wholesale distributor and processor — entered the scene with a splash. College friends Adil Palwala from Flushing and Tahmid Bashir from Merrick, now both 30-somethings sporting beards and eyeglasses, had just opened the halal burger joint of their dreams, Holy Cow, in its original Nomad location.
But they were first-time restaurateurs, sourcing from Canada and making each patty by hand until 4 a.m. “It just wasn’t sustainable,” says Palwala.
Soon, they leased a percentage of space in a processing plant in Hauppauge and bought a patty maker for Hal & Al. Palwala and Bashir bought large shipments of chicken and beef. They figured that if nobody wanted it, they could use it at Holy Cow. Sam’s Steakhouse in Long Island and Hot Peppers snatched them up right away.
Since 2018, Hal & Al has grown to supply about 40 restaurants, about a dozen grocery stores and institutions including NYU, and a smattering of retail customers across the country through its e-commerce site. Holy Cow has also expanded to three locations. In a move that made it stand out from its predecessors, it launched a marketing strategy that included a halal food festival that brought in 5,000 guests at Nassau Coliseum in 2018, and an online presence — Facebook, Instagram, and a website — that showcased their offering. “We blew up, just kept getting customers,” says Palwala.
Hal & Al has played a pivotal role in lifting many of the obstacles facing would-be halal restaurateurs — while also ushering in a slew of USDA-graded meats and cuts often used outside of the variety of traditional cuisines eaten by different Muslim communities — only these days out of a 7,500-square-foot processing room.
In part because of Hal & Al, the Amani Group can continue its streak. In late January, it opened the doors of a second location for Nur Thai in Astoria; the menu is more expensive with dishes and booze-free pairings. The Group is looking for an even bigger space for its sceney desi spot, Gully.
Hasan’s vision of a future is one where his kids — and their friends — can eat much more of the juicy, saucy dishes the world has to offer. He’s in good company with the many new restaurants with the same hopeful ideals for halal in NYC.
Caroline Shin is a Queens-raised food journalist and founder of the Cooking with Granny YouTube and workshop series spotlighting immigrant grandmothers. Follow her on Instagram @CookingWGranny.