Hotter than Halal

Islamic fusion restaurants are all the rage because of their organic meat -- and whole chiles

Raising livestock under halal restrictions is similar to raising livestock organically, but with better sales prospects. While the USDA began allowing meat to be certified "organic" in 1999, the agency was so afraid of offending the meat industry that officials made it clear they considered the term meaningless. In announcing the new rules, Agriculture Secretary Dan Glickman said, "Let me be clear about one other thing. The organic label is a marketing tool. It is not a statement about food safety. Nor is 'organic' a value judgment about nutrition or quality."

Between the USDA's ambivalence and the ridiculously high prices, there has never been much demand for organic meats. Halal meats, on the other hand, have a promising future. Islam is the fastest-growing religion in America, and the annual market for halal meat in the United States is already estimated at some $6 billion.

"For you, I will make it extra-hot," says Spicy Foods owner K.C. Perez (right). The only problem: no beer.
Deron Neblett
"For you, I will make it extra-hot," says Spicy Foods owner K.C. Perez (right). The only problem: no beer.

Location Info


Spicy Foods Halal-Chinese

6121 Hillcroft
Houston, TX 77081

Category: Restaurant > Chinese

Region: Outer Loop - SW


Spicy Foods Halal-Chinese, 6121 Hillcroft, 713-779-5555. Hours: Daily, noon to 10 p.m.

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

More from "The Future of Fusion" series

On my first visit to Spicy Foods Halal-Chinese restaurant, I ordered the most famous dish of the Indo-Chinese fusion cuisine, "chicken chilli dry." K.C. looked at me dubiously as he delivered the plate. The dish seemed to contain more chiles than meat. The stir-fried chicken pieces were covered with red chile flecks, tossed with pointy dry chiles and dotted with green wheels of sliced jalapeño.

I had been wanting to try chicken chilli for some time. I shove the whole chiles off to the side and try to eat just the chicken. The first bite is deceptively pain-free. But by the second or third, the heat accumulates and my forehead begins to sweat. Eventually, I accidentally get a chunk of whole chile mixed in with a bite of chicken. The fireworks go off in my mouth and surge through my nervous system. That's okay. From what I've heard, unless it's insanely hot, it simply isn't chicken chilli.

"Is it okay?" the owner asks.

"I don't know, what if I wanted it a little hotter?" I joke, trying to put him at ease.

"Oh, well then," he says with a sigh of relief. "There are two different kinds of chiles in the jars there on the table. You can make it as hot as you want."

"Who eats at this restaurant? Is it mainly Pakistanis?" I ask K.C.

"Indian people, Pakistanis, Indonesians, we all love Chinese food," he says. But when K.C. says Chinese food, he doesn't mean Cantonese or Mandarin. He's referring to the Indo-Chinese food that is wildly popular in Bombay and other parts of India.

Indians and non-Indians agree that the best thing to get at Spicy Foods is chicken, beef or shrimp in the chilli dry style. The meat isn't really dry, but sautéed with onions, garlic and a ton of chiles. The dry designation is meant to differentiate it from the dishes that are served swimming in sauce. Meat with chilli vegetables, for instance, though still hot, is drenched in thick brown cornstarch sauce; the chicken, beef and shrimp labeled Mongolian and shashlik are served in a fiery sauce that's bright red and way too sweet. Chicken Szechwan rice is stir-fried rice tinted brown with chiles.

I imagine a Halal-Chinese restaurant in Houston has the same sort of nostalgic appeal to the Indian and Pakistani communities here that the Tex-Mex joints in Saudi Arabia and Abu Dhabi must have for the Texans stationed over there. And no doubt there are a few Arabs who have learned to love Tex-Mex, too.

After several visits to Spicy Foods Halal-Chinese restaurant, I am quite taken with the food. But I am disappointed by the drink selection: canned soda or water. No doubt Tex-Mex restaurants in Arab countries have the same problem: Muslim discrimination against beer drinkers.

But today, I've hit upon a solution. If the beer can't come to the spicy halal food, then the spicy halal food must come to the beer.

"Hey, K.C.," I say. "Make that order to go."

"The Future of Fusion" looked at five Houston fusion cuisines in an attempt to understand what the foods say about the cultures that created them. The complete series can be found online and will be presented at an academic panel titled "Global Food? Fusion, Creolization and Hybridity in Culinary Culture" at the annual meeting of the American Studies Association in Houston this November.

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