Observant Muslims find more options for dining out
Aleena Charania can choose from traditional shwarmas and kebabs when she visits Busy Boy Sandwiches, a 4-year-old cafe on Hillcroft.
But Charania, an observant Houston Muslim who eats only halal, the Islamic version of kosher, usually opts for the hamburger or Philly cheesesteak.
"Definitely, when there's an option, I prefer that," said Charania, adding she can get Pakistani meals at home.
In recent years, Charania's options have multiplied as traditionally South Asian and Middle Eastern restaurants in the Houston area have added halal Western fare to their menus, and others have opened mainstream eateries with meat that's zabiha, or from animals slaughtered according to Islamic rites, and thus halal.
Every time 32-year old Charania or her friends hear a new place is hawking halal eats, the e-mails and texts fly.
"When I was younger there was no mainstream halal food," said Charania, who grew up in Houston and was previously limited to vegetarian or seafood options. "We get very, very excited about places that serve halal foods."
Restaurant owners say they're catering to observant Muslims who don't always want traditional ethnic dishes when they dine out. They're also tapping a growing market of second-generation Muslims like Charania, to whom tacos, buffalo wings and pizza are just as popular as curry and biryani.
"Anything you open Western or different and halal, it will do well," said Ziad Salameh, who opened Halal Wok on Hillcroft five years ago.
It's unclear how many Muslims live in the Houston area, but Kaleem Siddiqui, a spokesman for the Houston chapter of the Council on American-Islamic Relations, puts the number of mosques at more than 100.
Good business sense
The precise definition of halal, which means "what is permitted," can vary depending on the degree of restrictions observed. Its opposite, haram, refers to what is forbidden.
"These restaurants provide us the opportunity to take advantage of the culture we're living in without violating our religious dietary guidelines," Siddiqui said.
Offering halal also makes business sense given the city's large office crowd, noted Betsy Gelb, a marketing professor at the Bauer College of Business. Such places offer something for coworkers that want to eat both American fare and respect the dietary restrictions of Muslim colleagues.
"That to me is the biggest market for what I'd call the mixed approach," she said. "And that's what's motivating restaurants on both sides."
Western halal food is not a new concept. Kentucky Fried Chicken, Pizza Hut, McDonald's and several other American fast food chains have locations in the Middle East. But locally, independent restaurants outnumber the mainstream joints.
A Great Wraps franchise in Sugar Land has sold halal sandwiches for nearly seven years, with the company's permission. But owner Karim Haji doesn't hawk halal at his other area locations yet, he says, because franchise agreements limit where he can purchase his meat.
"We're committed to the brand. We even thought about not doing it anymore in Sugar Land to keep the brand happy, and we want to open more and more locations," said Haji, who says his Sugar Land location has a cult following within the Muslim community. "Houston is a diverse place, but they haven't seemed to realize there is a huge market for American halal food here."
While, mom-and-pop joints will be successful on a small scale, he said, there's more potential for franchises.
There are at least 70 Houston area halal restaurants, according to Zabihah.com, a Web site that lists halal eateries in cities around the world. It's unclear how many serve non-traditional food, but the fact that it's growing in Houston, is certain.
Recent years have seen the arrival of new halal Chinese, fried chicken and steak restaurants.
Last October, Tanawat Sumrith, who goes by "Book," started serving halal meat at Bonsai Fusion Japanese Steak House in Copperfield at the behest of a customer. Business has been so good, he's considering a Sugar Land location too. But he plans to keep it dry because alcohol is forbidden in Islam.
"They don't like to even see the alcohol," said Sumrith, who also had a halal menu at a local Thai restaurant he previously owned. "I am Buddhist, but we just want to keep everyone happy."
(Purva Patel, Houston Chronicle, June 11, 2009)
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