The template is, by this point, universal: Chopped dark-meat chicken spooned over basmati rice, accessorized with slivered onions, shredded lettuce and diced cucumbers, then drizzled with creamy, mysterious white sauce.
Cool and crunchy, warming and garlicky, there’s an ineffable magic to halal chicken-and-rice that will do you right on both good days and bad. At $7, the version at The Halal Girls — which opened in Huntington recently— the chicken is stained brick red and radiates cumin, coriander, maybe even cardamom. At least that’s my guess, because zeroing in on the spices wielded by each halal chicken vendor is near to impossible.
"You marinate the chicken beforehand?" I asked, in a deliberately off-handed way, as manager Ahmed Mayan boxes up my order.
Mayan doesn’t take the bait. "Yes, we marinate it, but the spices are a secret— [the kitchen] won’t even tell me!" he said, clearly practiced at deflecting such questions.
As far as I could tell, there weren’t any females working inside The Halal Girls, a lime-green, plexiglass-armored, takeout-only counter inside the tiny storefront at 44 Gerard St. I hear men talking in the kitchen as I wait for the rest of my order: A lamb gyro, falafel and fries.
A few minutes later, I unwrapped the oversized lamb gyro ($6) and unloose a charred pita wrapped around a riot of shredded romaine, diced tomatoes, spritzes of yogurt-based white sauce and hunks of soft, almost spongy lamb gyro, akin to a diced, spiced lamb meatball. The falafel gyro ($6) looks almost identical, except in place of lamb are crisp orbs of fried chickpeas whose insides are tined bright green from herbs.
The fries are a real surprise, battered until their edges resemble miniature moonscapes. They loudly crackle from each bite and I finish half of them within a few blocks.
Still, I wonder, where do the girls come in? Is it a branding gimmick? Turns out, only partly. "The name is a bit different," said co-owner Navid Manzoor the next day, indirectly referencing the The Halal Guys, which started as a New York City street cart in 1990 and has since grown to dozens of locations across the country, including two on Long Island. In the wake of that phenomena, a halal place seems to open every few months on Long Island, spots such as Shah’s Halal Food or Naz’s Halal; halal trucks and carts are even more numerous. "It’s always the name of a guy, not a girl. I thought, ‘let’s give them more respect, as a way of appreciation,’" Manzoor said.
Manzoor’s business partner, Christine Kim, is indeed a woman, and he said he has two female staffers in Huntington so far and is looking for more. He also hinted that another Halal Girls is on the horizon.
Manzoor also owns Kabul Halal Grills in Patchogue, Brentwood and Central Islip, which helps explains the markedly long-grained basmati used in Halal Girls’ chicken-over-rice, almost like Afghan pulao, minus the carrots and raisins.
In a quest to please many palates, Halal Girls also boxes up bacon cheeseburgers ($8), spicy wings ($6), Philly cheesesteaks ($7) and, strangely, açaí bowls (which start at $8). None of these I try (my soul is allergic to açaí), but I do make a second attempt at untangling the mysteries of the chicken.
"So, do you cook the chicken with spices …" I ask Manzoor.
"Yes, we use a seasoning," he answers, obliquely.
The Halal Girls & Acai Bowls is open from 10 a.m. to 10 p.m. daily. It’s at 44 Gerard St., Huntington. 631-470-4313. halalgirls.com (note: the menu is more complete on Seamless than on the website).