By the time the Halal Guys opened at the end of January, Houston foodies had reached a peak hysteria that most New Yorkers would relate more readily to the introduction of Dominique Ansel's cronut than a brick-and-mortar version of a street cart. Even in New York, the need for police to intervene with the traffic surrounding a restaurant opening just doesn't happen as it did when Halal Guys debuted in Houston.
When a business is slammed like that, the product is rarely up to par, so we gave Halal Guys some breathing room before trying out its small menu.
Even at 11:30 a.m., the weekday lunch crowd had already gulped up the few indoor tables and the smattering out front. A small patio out back still had plenty of seats, though we had to push past queued-up customers to get there and back. The menu is simple: Choose chicken, gyro meat or falafel, served over rice or in a pita. That's it, unless you're in the market for a side of hummus or olives or a container filled with a slice of baklava that looks like it's seen better days.
Our answer was to try everything. The combo platter includes both meats. Though I initially feared the bright-orange shreds were some type of cheez product when I saw them on the steam table from which the staff crafts each meal, they turned out to be colorful rice that serves as a base for shreds of lettuce, diced tomatoes and the guest's chosen protein. Chunks of chicken, prepared in a tall pile on the griddle, turned out to be wan and largely unseasoned. But that's not too much of a problem under a sea of garlic sauce, which is more loose aioli than piquant allium.
The sauce isn't as appealing as the versions I've had at my favorite Middle Eastern fast food spots, but it's creamy enough to cover the bird's lack of personality. The hot sauce, which packs a level of heat comparable to Sriracha, helps cover flaws, too. The gyro meat, cut into chunks, not slices, is of average flavor and moisture. I've had far better gyro blends, but also worse ones.
The falafel sandwich, however, falls in our bottom 10 percent. The pita is pliant and pleasant, but the chickpea balls are dry, with green centers that promise herbs but deliver not an ounce of freshness. In other words, the cuisine is pretty much flush with what one might expect to eat out of a cart on the street.
If that's what you're expecting, you'll be satisfied. If you want something more, head to one of Houston's many mom-and-pop shawarma shacks. They'll be happy to see you.