Islam’s teachings on alcohol are mixed and controversial. Some verses of the Quran prohibit “intoxicants” and other sins, such as gambling; others merely say that the risks of drinking outweigh the benefits. Muhammad’s teachings evolved over his lifetime, especially, according to one historical tradition, after a booze-fueled incident among his followers. At one point he called drinks “the work of Satan”; at another he promised “rivers of wine” in heaven.
Today many Muslims ignore the verses prohibiting booze, just as many Christians ignore Jesus’ ban on divorce. But the history of Islam and alcohol raises one peculiar question: Why do Muslim cultures make all the best drunk foods?
Few things are as satisfying after a couple of beers as a doner kebab wrap or a pile of lamb shawarma. And the single best drinking food on earth may well be falafel, the fried veggie balls that bring a thin veneer of healthiness to a devourable midnight meal.
Four new fast-casual restaurants have arrived in Dallas in recent months, three chains and one local, all specializing in the halal drunk foods that have taken Germany, the Netherlands and New York City by storm. I spent the last few weeks pitting their falafel wraps, rice platters and shawarma meats head-to-head. Here are the results.
Pita Wars: Amsterdam Falafelshop vs. Verts Mediterranean Grill
Verts, in Preston Hollow, formerly known as Vertskebap, is an earnest Mediterranean chain from Austin with a Chipotle-style setup. By contrast, Amsterdam Falafelshop has an edgy humor to match its Deep Ellum location. Amsterdam, decorated with bicycles and pot paraphernalia in homage to its namesake city, delights in telling falafel buyers to “smash your balls.” Amsterdam sidesteps the transgender bathroom debate with signs for “Usually Women” and “Mostly Men,” the latter room sporting a gigantic poster of Kim Jong Un, because why not?
And, frankly, the greater sense of fun at Amsterdam Falafelshop extends to its food, too. A choice of white or wheat pita and the self-serve veggie and condiment bar make sandwiches easier to customize. Authentically thick, twice-cooked Dutch-style fries are served in a paper cone, and the tables have little holes for the cones to nest in. Of the fry sauces, I most liked the satay-style peanut dip; the fancy mayo was slightly sour and felt off.
Most important, though, Amsterdam is generous with its fillings. The falafel pita ($6.85) comes with twice as much falafel as a similar sandwich at Verts ($6.95); keeping the sandwich manageably sized is why my balls needed, uh, smashing. Neither restaurant offers top-quality gyro meat, but the Amsterdam lamb is better-seasoned, fat-ribboned and more abundant ($8.65). Both places fry falafel to order, imparting that trademark crunch.
Verts does score points for creative add-ons, like hot harissa sauce and the essential Turkish condiment of sliced onions mixed with sumac and parsley. But beware of ordering a wrap ($7.95), which uses a jumbo tortilla rather than pita, and especially beware of the combo of house yogurt sauce and utterly flavorless feta cheese, which can together douse a good sandwich in a blanket of bland. An Amsterdam falafel pita with baba ghanoush, garlic sauce and hot red peppers is the winner of this round.
Advantage: Amsterdam Falafelshop.
Bowl Battle: Big Guys Chicken & Rice vs. The Halal Guys
The Halal Guys is a super-hyped, New York-based chain that began as one of the city’s legendary food carts. Big Guys Chicken & Rice is a sort of local knockoff, founded by Dallas natives who loved halal cart food and decided to bring it to Deep Ellum. So far, Big Guys has been largely and mysteriously empty, in contrast to Halal Guys’ out-the-door lines at all hours.
Halal Guys is still enduring new-restaurant hiccups. Despite a sizeable staff, tables are going uncleaned and napkin and fork dispensers are often left empty. On one visit, a dining companion reported that the women’s bathroom door was not locking.
But the food is a decent draw. Platters come with bright yellow rice, lettuce, small pita slices, a choice of meat or falafel, the restaurant’s much-hyped “white sauce” and its even more hyped “red sauce.” I went with a combo of lamb gyro and chicken ($8.49); both meats, shredded into tiny pieces, were a bit dry but perfectly fine.
“Perfectly fine” is kind of the Halal Guys motto, especially for fast food with a line out the door. White sauce is a good tangy yogurt sauce, but red sauce is harissa, so flame-throwing hot that my table for two went through a dozen cups of water. That red sauce is the reason why platters come with otherwise pointless shreds of lettuce.
The chicken and gyro combo platter at Big Guys looks almost exactly the same ($9.50). Big Guys’ lamb is perhaps a touch better-spiced and more flavorful, and its sauce a little less spicy; on the other hand, adding pita for $1 extra is a letdown, since the tiny chopped-up pita squares can’t be used to make a mini-sandwich.
Not keen on a combo bowl? Halal Guys can make a pita falafel wrap ($5.99). Unlike Verts and Amsterdam, Halal Guys doesn’t fry falafel to order; more frustrating, the only toppings it offers are lettuce, tomato and the ubiquitous red and white sauces. A more interesting sandwich is Big Guys’s paratha ($7.50), an Indian flatbread that is griddled or fried rather than baked. Try it with aloo, lightly breaded and ultra-creamy potato fritters, for a gently spicy carb bomb that tastes great after a few beers.
Both of these eateries offer perfectly fine fast food, of a kind new to Dallas. If Big Guys Chicken & Rice has the edge for now, it’s because they keep the restaurant clean, and they haven’t been swamped by eager crowds despite a prime Deep Ellum location. Oh, and their fries might be expensive ($2.50), but they’re stunners: big waffle fries coated in spices and cooked flawlessly to order.
Advantage: Big Guys Chicken & Rice
Great drunk foods require great drinking, so it’s appropriate that the best halal fast food spots in Dallas are in Deep Ellum. Yes, Halal Guys is annoyingly trendy, but this is honestly a cool trend, and one that taps into an underserved market. On a recent Friday night at 11:30, Halal Guys was jam-packed with young diners from the Middle East and southeast Asia.
For now, my top recommendation for a halal drunk snack is an overstuffed pita at Amsterdam Falafelshop or the aloo paratha at Big Guys Chicken & Rice. But maybe this is just the first sign that Texans are ready to embrace fast foods from the Muslim world. I’ll drink to that.
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Amsterdam Falafelshop, 2651 Commerce St. #120, 214-888-6831. 11 a.m. to midnight Sunday through Tuesday, 11 a.m. to 3 a.m. Wednesday through Saturday
Big Guys Chicken and Rice, 2614 Elm St., 214-810-1955. 11 a.m. to midnight Sunday through Wednesday, 10 a.m. to 4 a.m. Thursday through Saturday.
Halal Guys, 5444 Lemmon Ave., 469-729-9929. 11 a.m. to 11 p.m. Sunday through Thursday, 11 a.m. to 2 a.m. Friday through Saturday.
Verts Mediterranean Grill, 7949 Walnut Hill Lane, 469-726-2855. 11 a.m. to 10 p.m. daily.