There are certain food institutions invariably linked with specific cities: Austin has its barbecue joints, Philly's got its cheesesteaks, and you cannot walk down a street of New York City without seeing a Halal cart.

These sidewalk staples can usually be spotted from a distance thanks to the bright picture displays of the various foods being whipped up behind the thin metal wall. At this point, you may already be dreaming of chicken over rice covered in that gloriously mysterious white sauce you'd rather know nothing about, but these carts offer more than deliciously affordable fare. 

How did it all begin?

Halal carts are a surprisingly recent addition to the New York street scene compared to some of their predecessors. Street food carts have been covering the sidewalks of New York since the 19th century, selling things like oysters since they were much cheaper at that time.

The carts were operated almost exclusively by immigrants, starting with Italians selling peanuts, then Jews pushing knishes, and eventually shifting to a Greek-dominated franchise in the latter half of the 20th century. It was only in the 1980s that Egyptian immigrants opened up carts to supply cab drivers with quick, cheap Halal food that could be eaten on the go. Since then, Halal carts have completely dominated the street food scene.

What actually is Halal?

A photo posted by Umi Syam (@umieats) on

"Halal" refers to the method of slaughter used on the animals that makes it okay for Muslims to eat the meat (think "kosher" for Jews). The usual Halal cart offerings include variations of chicken, lamb and falafel served either over rice or in pita bread, and always covered in white and red sauce. 

The white sauce is a take on a traditional Egyptian condiment called zabadi, which is similar to the Greek tzatziki but with mint instead of cucumber. The red sauce, which is usually pretty spicy, is thought to be a spin-off of an Egyptian harissa sauce. 

What's the deal with The Halal Guys?

A photo posted by The Halal Guys (@thehalalguys) on

While most of these carts operate as independent but similar entities, one in particular has made a name for itself. The Halal Guys started as a cart like any other, but eventually created a brand for itself through creating a proprietary logo, using only yellow bags for the food, wearing yellow shirts, and serving up dishes in circular foil containers instead of the more recognizable rectangular styrofoam boxes.

With their own brick-and-mortar stores all over the country and dozens of carts across the city, the Halal Guys have turned street meat into a franchise of its own (even packaging their signature white and red sauce for separate purchase). 

So, next time you grab your $5 chicken/lamb combo platter, tip your hat to the generations of immigrants who gave way to one of New York's most delicious food institutions.