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By Eating Our Words
K.C. Perez, the proprietor and head waiter of the Spicy Foods Halal-Chineserestaurant on Hillcroft, is a stout Pakistani who looks a lot like Cheech Marin. He's wearing a black ball cap that says "Dawg House," a tropical rayon shirt and a large yellowish tooth suspended on a gold chain around his neck.
"What should we get for dinner?" I ask him.
"Get the beef chilli dry and the chicken Szechwan rice," he says without much deliberation.
Houston, TX 77081
Region: Outer Loop - SW
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Chicken chilli dry: $6.99
Beef chilli dry: $6.99
Chicken Szechwan rice: $5.99
Tencafé, 5959 Hillcroft, 713-972-1100. Hours: Monday, 11 a.m. to 4 p.m.; Tuesday through Thursday, 11 a.m. to 10 p.m.; Friday and Saturday, 11 a.m. to 11 p.m.; Sunday, 11 a.m. to 10 p.m.
Fiery jalapeño burger: $5.95
Ten chicken sandwich: $4.95
Mix grill dos: $9.95
Goat curry: $5.95
"Is the rice hot?" I ask.
"For you, I will make it extra-hot," he says with a grin. On my first visit, K.C. wasn't sure I would be able to handle the tongue-blistering heat level that the Spicy Foods restaurant is known for.
Halal is the Islamic equivalent of kosher, a religion-based system of food rules that covers everything from what an animal eats to how it is slaughtered. And halal fusion restaurants are one of the newest and most curious food service categories in the United States. Some are pan-Arab, catering to Muslims of all nationalities. Others, like the Spicy Foods Halal-Chinese restaurant, are re-creations of a specific fusion cuisine created in India.
Like Bollywood movies, halal fusion restaurants are supposed to appeal to Indians and Pakistanis, but they have become all the rage among adventurous Americans as well. Movies like Monsoon Wedding and the nearly four-hours-long Lagaan are fascinating to American film buffs because they break all the Hollywood rules. But non-Muslims are attracted to halal fusion cuisine for two specific reasons: Fiery-food fans like the exotic seasonings; and health-conscious Americans are starting to seek out halal restaurants for the "organic meat" they serve.
The "fiery jalapeño burger" at tencafé features a one-third-pound halal hamburger patty covered with raw serrano chile slices and an all-American square of individually wrapped cheese. A thin, green, yogurt-based jalapeño chutney is served on the side along with lettuce and tomato. I coat the top half of the bun with the chutney and add the vegetables. "Warning, this burger is very hot!!!!!!" it says on the menu. Two bites in, and my nose starts running.
My lunch companion orders the "ten chicken sandwich," made with a flattened fillet that's battered, fried and completely covered with bright red Sriracha sauce. The chicken sandwich isn't hot, according to the waitress, it's merely "tangy." So tangy, in fact, that my guest sneezes violently almost as soon as she puts it in her mouth. The menu also lists a Philly-style steak-and-cheese hoagie, a Mediterranean chicken sandwich with garlic mayo and three ordinary-sounding American burgers.
On my first visit to tencafé I tried bakra ke korma, a fabulous slow-cooked Indian goat curry. I also sampled the "mix grill dos" (not to be confused with the "mix grill uno"). Both consist of grilled meats from several different cultures. "Dos" includes a succulent quarter of tandoori chicken with a half-skewer of tandoori chicken cubes; a half-skewer of jujubideh, a Persian chicken kabob seasoned with saffron and lemon; and a full skewer of koobideh, a highly seasoned Persian ground-beef kabob. The restaurant also serves a Greek-style beef shawarma wrap that I have yet to sample and a Texas chicken-fried chicken with rosemary cream gravy that I probably won't get around to trying.
Tencafé describes itself as a fusion restaurant that brings together Persian, Indian, Mediterranean and American dishes. I love the place because it serves the most ferociously seasoned Middle Eastern food I've ever eaten, but the menu touts the food's health benefits: "Halal meat is hand processed from select animals in which machines and commercial processing are not used. The animals sourced for halal meat are not fed hormones of any kind, so you can be assured of receiving healthier, better-tasting meat for your dining experience."
Some Muslims consider kosher meat to be halal as well, but others have much stricter definitions. "The issue of Halal meat has been a bone of contention amongst North American Muslim communities," according to an Islamic information Web site called Sound Vision (www.soundvision.com). The site quotes Ahmad Sakr, professor emeritus of food science and author of Understanding Halal Food and A Muslim Guide to Food Ingredients, who champions a modern definition of halal that rejects the use of hormones and other standard meat industry practices on Muslim religious principles.
In order to fulfill the halal requirement that every animal be blessed before slaughter, some chicken-processing plants have installed tape recorders that play a looped Muslim blessing while chickens whir by on a processing line -- a dubious interpretation of halal rules, according to critics like Sakr. The high-speed chicken blessings do illustrate the American meat industry's practical dilemma. While the United States boasts one of the world's largest meat-packing industries, the demands of halal certification don't fit in with the established methods of mass production. Hence, much of the halal meat consumed in the United States must be imported.
Lately, however, some American beef producers have fixed their sights on the potentially lucrative halal market. Last year, a Saudi-born American named Adnan Aldayel opened the first halal slaughtering and processing plant in the United States in North Dakota. Under the supervision of the Islamic Society of North Dakota, 50 cooperating halal cattle ranchers feed the animals a vegetarian diet with no growth hormones or animal by-products. The meats are sold under the brand name Dakota Halal.