Taste Test: The 53rd and 6th Halal Street Food Showdown
Famous Halal Guys, Northwest Corner of 52nd Street & 6th Avenue
If you're a street food lover in New York City, you've probably heard about the Famous Halal Guys cart on the corner of 53rd Street and 6th Avenue, the one where, come late night and lunchtime, a line forms down the block for their chicken and lamb over rice. By day it's on the Southeast corner of the intersection, but at night it parks on the Southwest corner.*
* At night you'll find several Famous Halal Guys in the area—last night I counted four official Famous Halal Guys carts in and near the intersection.
You've also probably heard about the other cart, called New York's Best Halal Food, that literally swaps places with them, taking their Southwest corner by day. The cooks have similar outfits and nearly identical packaging. They've modeled their food to look and taste like the Famous Halal Guys. They wear yellow t-shirts or sweaters that look suspiciously like the others' uniforms. And they very often get longer lines than the cart they copy.
Midtown Lunch, which has more in-depth reporting on the subject than anyone else thanks to Zach Brooks' tireless efforts, frequently calls them the imposter cart, people posing as the original Famous Halal Guys to benefit from their fame. In the past, they've claimed to be related to the famous cart that parks in that spot at night in the past—all part of one of the most notorious and amusing folk legends in New York's street food world.
You should read more about the two carts in Midtown Lunch's seminal mythbusting article on the subject, and while you're there, check out their full archives for all the reporting you could possibly need.
Though we always read Midtown Lunch's annual midtown-wide Street Meet Palooza blind tastings, the most recent of which ranked the Famous Halal Guys in 7th place and New York's Best Halal ahead in 3rd, we've never tasted the two carts head to head ourselves or performed an in-depth analysis on their components. How different is the meat? The rice? Are the sauces mistakable for each other? We finally paid a visit to see for ourselves.
At this point, both carts have their fans, and they're both standouts in the midtown chicken and rice cart ecosystem. But is the original Famous Halal Guys any better? Does the imposter's long lines come from its borrowed fame or its superior food? Or should you just let the shorter line be your guide? And what about the much less-trafficked Famous Halal Guys offshoot at 52nd and 6th (this one genuine, formerly Shendy's Halal; more on that here)? Does its shorter line make it a better bet, or does something get lost in translation?*
* The Famous Halal Guys also have a cart on the Southwest corner of 53rd and 7th by day, but we wanted to keep this particular taste test to the 53rd and 6th arena; when you're lunching in midtown, an extra avenue block can feel like the road to Siberia.
How to Spot the Difference
New York's Best Halal copied the yellow t-shirts and sweatshirts of the Famous Halal Guys; the Halal Guys currently brand their bags, shirts, and carts with the slogan "We Are Different." Their to-go bags are yellow; New York's Best Halal are white. The Famous Halal Guys logo features a gyro log on a spit; New York's Best Halal has an apple instead. The 52nd Street Famous Halal Guys cart (Northwest corner) sports all the same gear and branding as the original 53rd Street cart. (Thanks again to Zach and Midtown Lunch for pointing out these distinctions.)
Though they change location by time of day, the 53rd Street carts are consistent: the Famous Halal Guys occupy the Southeast corner of 53rd and 6th by day and the Southwest corner by night. New York's Best Halal occupies the Southwest corner by day.
We visited the carts at 1:30 in the afternoon (daytime locations in effect) and tasted samples blind. At each cart, we ordered chicken and lamb over rice with the standard amount of white and hot sauce ($6); all three orders were ready and tasted within five minutes of each other.
Famous Halal Guys
The plate that started the legend. The white meat chicken is chopped small and it's light on both the spices and seasoning. The lamb is also chopped small into little nubbins. The long-grain rice is bright orange, almost carrot-colored. By default, it's topped with ample white sauce, a small amount of hot sauce, and a couple strips of pita.
New York's Best Halal Food
It's plenty similar, but easy to tell the difference by sight alone. The lamb comes in much larger chunks, the rice isn't as nuclear orange, the hot sauce is noticeably different, and the pita comes in quarters, not strips.
Famous Halal Guys (52nd Street)
Unlike the imposter cart, this platter looks pretty much identical to the 53rd Famous Halal Guys: same small-chopped chicken and lamb, same orange rice. Even the extra containers of hot and white sauce on the side look the same. The only visible difference is the shape the pita is cut into.
The chicken at all three carts tastes a little different, but the overall impression is the same: bland, barely seasoned white meat cooked until dry. We wouldn't order it solo at any of the carts, but it makes for great filler when mixed with the highly seasoned lamb loaf. And that lamb is where things get interesting.
At New York's Best Halal it tasted flat and one-dimensional; the Famous Halal Guys lamb was juicier and better seasoned, with more even, nuanced spicing. We noted some extra charred flavor on the lamb from the 52nd Street cart, and slightly smaller chunklets that seemed to promote more browning.
It's impressive how different this lamb can taste, given that they're likely starting with the very same lamb loaf. But the size of the chopped meat, cooking technique, available surface area for browning, and added spices can make a lot of difference.
The rice at the 52nd and 53rd Street Famous Halal Carts tastes pretty much identical, and though the color makes me a little afraid to put it in my body, it's good stuff. It's firm but still fluffy, with well-cooked grains that can still soak up some of the sauce. It's neutral in flavor, but not bland.
The New York's Best Halal rice is a more "natural" color, but we found it too firm and oily. Not quite undercooked, and still fine to eat, but if given the choice, it wouldn't be our top pick.
Hot sauce is a funny thing. Taste it alone and it can be face-meltingly gross. But in the right proportion with starch, meat, and fat, it's a beautiful thing. Each of our platters came with a thin strip of hot sauce, with the option to grab small containers of extra. The sauce at New York's Best Halal is a little sharper and hotter, as if it were a straight mix of vinegar and chilies. On its own it's terrible, but you don't eat it on its own, and the slight added heat livens up the less exciting lamb.
The hot sauce from Famous Halal Guys is identical at both locations. There's intense heat to it, but it's more balanced with some sweet pepper flavor. It has a good amount of crumbled chili grit, almost like a loose harissa. There's more going on in it, but really its purpose is to cut through the fat of the meat and sauce. It does that well, but not significantly better than the hot sauce New York's Best Halal. We're calling a draw.
The 52nd Street Famous Halal Guys claimed to use the same white sauce as the 53rd Street cart, but we found it noticeably tangier, more like ranch dressing, and a little thinner. The New York's Best Halal sauce is more thick and creamy than both of the others, with much less tang. All three are likely mayo-based, but New York's Best Halal seems to use it in greater proportion.
After tasting the sauces, and re-tasting them, and tasting them again, we were able to point out differences, but they didn't factor too heavily into our overall preferences on the rice platter. We'll give a slight advantage to both Famous Halal Guys white sauces for a cleaner, less fatty flavor, but the difference isn't that great between them on the rice.
Salad and Pita
The pita and salad options at all three carts are pretty much the same: under-toasted storebought pita that's unremarkable but still fluffy and crisp iceberg lettuce. They do exactly what they're supposed to do equally well.
So Which One is the Best?
Break it down like this and it looks like a clear winner emerges: the Famous Halal Guys in several categories, with bonus points to the 52nd Street cart for a more browned lambiness that really brings some added dimension to the whole package. The imposter cart comes quite close to replicating all the elements of the Famous Halal Guys food, but its best attribute comes from what it does differently: larger hunks of lamb that are a little more satisfying to chomp down on.
To be honest, we dug all three of these rice platters, and would be more than happy to call them lunch any day of the week. They're all great street meat, and midtowners should be happy they're all there—if only to cut the length of the lines.
And that may be the most important criterion of all. The lines at both 53rd Street carts can get crazy long, much more so than at the 52nd Street cart. I'd go back to the 52nd Street Famous Halal Guys cart before the 53rd location for the superior meat, but it's the shorter line that's far more likely to impact my decision when I'm starving and looking to avoid a 20-minute wait. And the 52nd Street cart has one more locational advantage that Jessica pointed out: nearby benches for comfortable eating, essential for downing a $6 pound-or-so of street food.