Halal cuisine has blossomed around Sacramento

SACRAMENTO: Stockton Boulevard is better known for pho than falafel, so it might be a surprise to find that a onetime Orange Freeze stand has reopened as the halal gyro joint Orange Oven.  Ateeq Rahman, who grew up in the neighborhood and now attends nursing school at Sacramento State, opened the popular new spot in May, turning out gyro and chicken wraps, samosas, halal burgers, and, of course, fruit freezes.

Rahman’s stand – a mashup of old and new Sacramento, serving both Muslims who adhere to Islamic dietary guidelines and non-Muslims who may barely know what halal means – is a hallmark of the growing visibility and availability of halal food around the capital region.

If you love kebabs, gyros, shawarma and falafel, this is a great time to be a Sacramentan. A rich and diverse landscape of halal cuisine has blossomed from Natomas to Folsom, including not just traditional dishes of the Middle East but also American favorites prepared with halal meat. Halal guidelines, analogous to kosher practices in Judaism, dictate how animals can be butchered and how meat can be handled for Muslim eaters who follow them; they also, like kosher laws, prohibit pork.

That expansion might have been easy to miss if you don’t frequent the Fulton Avenue corridor of Arden Arcade, long a hotspot for Middle Eastern and Mediterranean restaurants – some halal, some not. But the burgeoning market for halal dining is making itself felt around the region, from downtown to Folsom, Natomas to Elk Grove – even in small-town Woodland, where mod, sleek House of Shah Afghan Urban Eats advertises all-halal fare like worth-the-drive spicy beef chapli kabob.

Newer restaurants branding themselves specifically as halal include Rancho Cordova’s popular Halal Fried Chicken, which offers American-style fast-food favorites, and outposts of the booming chain The Halal Guys, which opened in Davis in the spring and is projecting a fall opening in Sacramento’s Ice Blocks development.

The Halal Guys, which now has dozens of locations worldwide, touts itself as American halal food and adopts a stripped-down, Chipotle-style menu of gyros, chicken and falafel over rice as a platter or folded in a wrap. It may be fast food, but it’s savory and fresh; don’t miss the excellent, incendiary smooth hot sauce.

Sacramento has been home to a thriving Muslim community for generations; indeed, it’s home to the oldest mosque on the West Coast, on V Street. Recently, the region has also become America’s top destination for resettled refugees, including a large proportion of Syrian, Iraqi, Iranian and Afghan transplants. Until recently, however, it wasn’t easy to find halal dining options, says Sajad Shakoor, owner of Falafel Corner.

Shakoor opened Falafel Corner in late 2016 as “an act of service,” he says, hoping to spread the options for halal food and encouraged to do so by his imam. Shakoor’s restaurant, an immediate hit, has expanded to Folsom, Elk Grove, Vacaville and Fremont. The Natomas location, a casual lunch counter in a former Coldstone Creamery location that sat vacant for nearly 10 years, has at its center over the range hood an enormous sign reading, “Halal Way or the Highway.” In the same shopping center, three other businesses offer halal options: a grocery selling meat, Shalimar (an Indian restaurant) and a Thai place that, Shakoor says, started offering a halal chicken dish to meet customer demand.

Shakoor, whose family came to Sacramento from Pakistan in the 1970s, says it’s the kids of immigrants – like him – whose demand has boosted the availability and visibility of halal food. “The younger generation who are born and raised here in America have been the driving force,” says Shakoor. “They wanted halal hamburgers and pizza.” Shakoor obliges them with burgers and other fusion food like a quesadilla with lamb, in addition to excellent, juicy grilled chicken with rice, gyros and fresh from-scratch falafel fried to order.

In response, big meat processors have established halal programs, among them Selma-based powerhouse Harris Ranch, which founded its program in 1992 and which supplies Shakoor’s restaurants. Another regional processor is Stockton-based Islamic Meat and Poultry; locally, Restaurant Depot offers wholesale halal meat.

Shakoor says his customer base is split between diners seeking specifically halal and those just after an inexpensive, fresh, flavorful lunch. The latter are mainly a lunch crowd from nearby offices, while the halal eaters tend to come in for dinner.

From observing this pattern at the Natomas branch, Shakoor chose his newer locations to be close to both office parks and communities with Muslim residents. He’s found, however, that diners who weren’t interested in halal specifically have been lured by the quality and flavors of the cooking. “People come in for falafel or gyro and ask, ‘What are you doing differently?’” he says. “I tell them, ‘Well, it’s halal.’ I’ve had customers tell me they seek out halal now because they can taste a difference.”

Ahmed Adnan, manager of Babylon City Market, which serves only halal meat and has a busy butcher counter, has heard similar things from customers at the 8-year-old market’s bustling deli counter, which offers kebabs, shawarma and fresh-baked breads, including the diamond-shaped Iraqi bread samoon. “I’ve always had halal meat so can’t compare it to other kinds,” Adnan says, “but people try it and say it tastes better.”

The Iraqi-born Adnan came to Sacramento as a refugee from Syria in 2009 and has noticed a growth in halal options over the years since he settled here. “There’s a lot of consumers for it,” he says. “A lot of refugees are coming from Afghanistan and Middle East to Sacramento, and you need that product.”

Adnan says those new residents flock to Babylon City Market, which overflows with Middle Eastern specialties, drinks, spices and sweets. It’s worth your time to browse the aisles, but don’t overlook the bustling hot-food counter with plenty of takeout options – an ideal place to pick up a picnic for a day by the American River; the deli accounts for about half of the store’s business, Adnan says. “The thing that differentiates us from other markets is the bread, the deli and the meat.” (Source: Sacramento Bee)