A Food Cart Creates Community

Halal Cart Offers Taste of Islamic Culture

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By Faizan Hassan, Photos by Dan Little

In front of the Unitarian Church on North Pleasant Street in Amherst lies a hidden gem in plain sight: a gem worth six bucks and the potential to rock one’s world.

Elsayed Fathi, owner of the New York Halal Cart, came to the United States from Egypt in 1994 as a 19-year-old looking for work. “I wanted to live the American dream, so I came here I guess,” he says. “I worked in New York for somebody’s cart [and] that’s how I learned to cook.”

Nearly 20 years later, while visiting a friend at UMass, Fathi saw a new opportunity: Despite large numbers of Muslim students in the area, there was a lack of halal food (food sanctioned by Islamic law). In 2012, he left his cart in New York City to be run by his brother and set up shop in Amherst.

“Getting my town permit was hard,” he says. “Because, before me, there weren’t any food trucks in Amherst. I was the first one.”

Fathi cooks “American halal,” a complex melting pot of Mediterranean, Middle Eastern, and New York street food. “This is not really Egyptian street food,” says Fathi. “It’s a New York invention.”

Popularized in New York in the early ’90s, the first-ever “American halal” cart was founded when two Egyptian immigrants opened up a hot dog stand on 53rd Street and Sixth Avenue, and soon realized the potential for halal street food. They introduced meals with meat, pita, and rice, and hence gave birth to “the halal food culture” or “American halal.”

Halal means permissible in Arabic. Certain foods, like alcohol and pork, are not allowed under Islamic guidelines. Meats such as chicken, lamb, and beef are considered halal only when they are slaughtered under Islamic law.

For a meat to be considered halal it must be slaughtered humanely, according to Islamic Society of North America (ISNA), a halal certifying agency. Further: “The name of God [Allah] is to be pronounced as a reminder that we do not have the right to take the animal’s life except by the permission of God to meet our need for food.”

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Fathi’s menu consists of only a few items: chicken or lamb over rice or in a filled sandwich. Both are generously covered with a secret-ingredient white sauce.

“The white sauce is bomb,” says Tauqeer Hassan, a student at Holyoke Community College and a regular at the New York Halal Cart. “I’m studying business in college and honestly, there’s a lot to learn from Fathi. Most importantly, the great customer service he provides.”

Fathi operates from a three- by eight-foot cart complete with a grill, gyro machine, steam table, and a small generator to operate the lights when it gets dark. Customers gather around the cart, chat, and watch him cook. He takes orders via an earbud from those who call ahead, while cooking for and joking with those in line.

Though there are many restaurants to compete with in downtown Amherst, Fathi has the advantage of lower expenses, especially when it comes to rent. Lunch cart permits are only $125 annually.

“I don’t have to pay high rents when the university is closed,” he says. “I keep my costs down and choose not to come during winter break when weather is rough and business is low.”

Fathi’s success isn’t just smart economics and good food. His cart, though small, has created a sense of community as a popular hangout spot for the UMass Muslim Student Association (MSA).

Most Fridays after prayer, MSA members gather at Fathi’s cart and celebrate the end of the week.

“We come in groups, socialize, and enjoy the delicious food,” says Zara Mehmood, MSA president.

“The food is delicious. It’s the best value, and he’s a very fun and nice guy,” says Talha Khan, a sophomore at UMass. “My family is from Pakistan, and I grew up eating biryani, which is a very special dish, since I am not close to home. This is the closest thing to biryani that I can find.”

A version of this story was originally published in Amherst Regional High School’s student newspaper, The Graphic.