Macaulay Honors College Seminar 2, IDC 3001H

Author: Belinda Wong

Regional Preferences — The Halal Guys and their Competitors

I pass by 6th Ave and 53rd Street on a daily basis after classes. It’s not an unfamiliar sight to see the six The Halal Guys halal carts (and one The Halal Guys catering van) with lines of hungry New Yorkers on their lunch break. Neighboring hot dog stands and nearby parked food trucks cannot compete with the loyalty New Yorkers have given to The Halal Guys and those street vendors often find themselves looking down on their phones much more often than on the grill. It’s heart breaking to see other street vendors including competing halal carts attempt the impossible of perhaps snagging one customer from the long lines for they not only sacrifice a more profitable location for the exclusive spot to be near The Halal Guys node, but also their permit usage which is constantly ticking down until its expiration date.

However, once I leave the busy streets of Manhattan, I found an interesting discovery. Bordering LaGuardia Community College located on Thomson Ave is another chain of various halal carts and other food carts waiting to serve hungry college kids. To my surprise there is another The Halal Guys cart located within this chain of food carts but it was the least popular one! There was not a single customer ordering  and the vendor manning the cart at that time even had the grill turned off. Students and other pedestrians were lining up at other neighboring carts varying in names and products, but The Halal Carts had their popularity turned against them.

Having the tables turned upon this realization, I recall there are other well known halal carts within their own respective region. For example, Shah’s Halal Cart and Sammy’s are some of the most dominant halal carts in Queens. Shah’s also has recently expanded to Long Island with a cart located in Hicksville! Although the name “The Halal Guys” is often the first one we think of, given their popularity and success that allowed them to branch into catering and a brick-and-mortar store, New Yorkers will always save a space in their stomachs for local favorites. I cannot say on behalf of New York that this is present in other remaining boroughs such as Brooklyn or the Bronx, but according to online reviews, Queens residents seem to have their hearts (and stomachs) set on Shah’s over The Halal Guys.

Trendy or Local?

During Wednesday’s class, we discussed at the very last minute the “anomaly” of having an unexpected customer in an ethnic restaurant. There was a shared opinion that often when we see a restaurant, especially an ethnic restaurant, that has diverse clientele, then that restaurant must be doing something right and worth trying.

This raises the question of why do we have this mindset? What influences or persuades us to take the leap of faith to try someplace new when we would never have bothered to notice it before solely because others are going there? One of the many answers is social media. When mouth watering images of food plague our feeds and dashboards, it’s difficult to not notice or at least get curious. However, why is there a party heralding this movement to begin with? These “trendsetting” foods would never have been considered as “trends” if they were never “discovered” by a third party. Whomever this third party is, in regards of which racial, age, professional group whom we put our trust in, they undeniably have the omnipotent power to define which stores or restaurants will be successful and which will be left in the dust.

The example I am most concerned with are “food trends” that appear all over social media and as a result, credit and respect for diversity seems to be thrown out the window. For example, rolled ice cream in 2016. The concept at first is indeed inventive and the making process is possibly classified as art. However, what is herald and validated as something “brand new” and “innovative” by whomever received credit as the first store to have it available to the public, completely disregards its cultural history and presence in Eastern Asia where it has been a popularized decades prior to its first appearance in the states.

Simply put, go beyond your favorite dishes and the Instagram posts that decide for you what you should eat, what you should visit, and frankly who you should care about. To solely give social media the benefit of the doubt that this is the “correct” way to “genuinely” seek out “authentic” and “trendy” foods because an unrelated third party decided to take the opportunity to capitalize off something that has been around us the entire time is quite disappointing. There are established communities where locals and other people do enjoy without the approval of anyone else why they should go there instead of here because they live in and know their neighborhood. NYC itself allows us the privilege to do the very same thing as exploring the world with a simple train ride to the multiple ethnic neighborhoods throughout each borough of the city to discover. There will be places worth going and knowing if you simply explore for yourselves what the world really is and not the world only present behind the screen of your phone or computers. With that mindset, one can find themselves grow and learn more and more about themselves and about their world.

Food in America

During Monday’s discussion, we briefly mentioned the cultural diffusion effects of immigration has on a country’s cuisine in America. For example, we know that pizza comes from an Italian origin. Yet, any real Italian would be baffled at our dollar pizza slices could pass off as genuine pizza. I find it ironic how Americans tend to customize other cuisines to their own liking in order to suit their palates, but are deeply offended when foreigners label American cuisine as just giant versions of normal food. By taking iconic and traditional dishes and “transforming” them to be “acceptable” for the American food industry, we strip away the cultural identity of those countries and carry out regional stereotypes that misrepresent the world outside of ours.

The American food industry has taken advantage of the diverse melting pot that makes up our country. From food alone, we can connect to multiple people around the word even if we’re thousands of miles apart. We selectively choose what dish is most profitable to cater and from this selection process, stereotypes and misunderstanding is carried out. Take for example vindaloo, a popular dish from the region of Goa in India. What the American food industry does is take one popular dish and add their own American twists so that other Americans feel “safe” or familiar enough to try it. In the situation of vindaloo, common proteins such as beef, chicken, and pork might be added in restaurants so that they’re attractive enough for non-native customers to order. From only experiencing dishes we have heard of or tried, we automatically associate that one particular dish with the entire country. This misrepresents the multiple vegan Indians and those who do not eat certain proteins due to their religion as they are all categorized as “chicken vindaloo enthusiasts” because that is the only dish we see on menus.

In contrast, we acknowledge the multiple iconic regional foods across America. For example, we know that the South is the node of barbecue and the New England region is the only place to have the freshest seafood. Every region of the United States has regional culinary dishes that we automatically can name and understand whereas we struggle to name more than just a California roll for Japan or General Tso’s chicken for China. What’s worse is we can only name the incorrect associated dishes of other countries because we’ve been only catered American “approved” versions of those traditional cuisines. These American “approved” versions are detrimental for cultures as they discourages us to continue educating ourselves about them. When we don’t like one “exotic” dish we’ve tried from a non-American cuisine restaurant, we will automatically claim not liking that entire culture’s cuisine. For example, Chinese food is notorious for MSG as it is present in multiple “Chinese” take out restaurants and now the cuisine is deemed unhealthy and unacceptable to consume. Misrepresentation of cuisines reinforce cultural stereotypes. I believe the capitalistic nature of America is the biggest culprit behind this as there is no moral consumption under capitalism when restaurant owners exploit POC cultures/cuisines for revenue.