From Home-Based Biz To Hip Arab St Café Inspired By New York’s The Halal Guys
Hearty meat-and-spiced rice bowls inspired by the famous NY original.
Arab Street welcomes its latest trendy makan joint with Overrice, a month-old casual outfit that draws inspiration from one of New York City’s most iconic takeout meals: the Halal Guys’ chicken over rice. Stories of the queue for the Halal Guys food cart's American halal food in Midtown New York are legendary. Our memories of it have to do with long waits in the winter for steaming-hot foil plates of the stuff: tender chicken, doner lamb, or both, heaped over yellow spiced rice, the whole thing drenched under an indiscriminate amount of their mystery white and red sauces. We joined tourists and locals alike on the nearest street corner to scarf it all down while it was still hot, and it was delicious. So we’re more than a little excited to try this local riff on the Manhattan specialty.
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Here at Arab street, you enter the space and the business makes no secret of its inspiration: a large street-art style painting of Lady Liberty overlooks the joint from one wall, and the entrance to the backroom is done up to look like a New York subway train door. All of this is threaded together by a yellow-and-black theme harkening to NYC’s iconic taxis. It’s a little kitschy, but we like it. The atmosphere is buzzy and the crowd mostly youthful Arab Street hipsters drawn to the cool interiors and Halal Guys claim-to-fame.
While the self-service eatery is not yet halal-certified, all ingredients are halal and the biz is described as 'Muslim-owned'.
The “guys” in question are a group of four young friends: Shaun Dominic Rishi, 37, Hakim Abdullah, 29, Wan Azhar, 27, and Zuhilmi Zailani, 28 (who was away when we visit). The group started out as soccer buddies and later became colleagues, and have been friends for many years. At the start of the pandemic, with their full-time jobs looking uncertain for each of them, they decided to merge their love of food and cooking into a food business. The four decline to say what their previous jobs were, except that it involved lots of travel. In fact, the four of them once passed through New York and loved The Halal Guys chicken over rice concept so much that they decided to emulate it when they were looking for ideas for their business. “We wanted to bring something different to Singapore,” says Shaun, while also riding on Singaporeans’s love of direct-from-the-States imports, like LA’s sandwich-specialist Eggslut. “And doing our own version is a lot cheaper than franchising,” he half-jokes.
The business began with the circuit breaker, and the four of them had to do R&D remotely, driving over to each others’s places to deliver samples. Each one of them took charge of one main component: Azhar developed the falafel, Shaun worked on the pulled beef, Zuhilmi worked on the chicken, and Hakim worked on the sauces, adapting the Halal Guys’s original flavours with more homegrown touches. The red sauce here, for example, is an amalgamation of Hakim’s family sambals, made under strict maternal supervision. “My mother was always scolding me in the kitchen,” recalls Hakim with a laugh.
The home-based business did very well. At its peak, during Ramadan, they were selling almost 100 bowls a day. So, in May, the boys took a risk opening a brick and mortar stall during very uncertain times, setting up shop at Epic Haus@Jalan Sultan, a food court at Hotel Boss. Issues between the operator and hotel forced the food court shut, so the boys went on the hunt for a new place and found this very cool location along buzzy Arab Street, just around the corner from specialty coffee joint, % Arabica.
“Everyone was cautioning us from opening during this time, but we have so much confidence in our food,” says Shaun. And it seems to have paid off. Business is apparently doing well, as evidenced from the Thursday afternoon crowd. Now the four of them are here every day on cooking and front-of-house duties, starting their day around 8am to do prep for most of their components, which are made from scratch.
It’s an order and collect system, and the menu here centres around, well, Middle Eastern-style platters of spiced meats over rice. You take your pick of grilled chicken thigh, pulled beef, or falafel if you’re going veg, with the option to combine any two for a combo. Along with rice, you get slices of toasted pita and a simple salad, all loaded on the plate. Just like the original. There’s also a stuffed pita pocket option, and the menu features some side dishes, mocktails, and dessert, an expansion from their home-based menu.
Marinated chicken is grilled on the stove till lightly charred then served over yellow basmati rice, with a refreshing tomato and lettuce salad on the side. The chicken has a complex flavour from its spice marinade — secret, we’re told — but very garlic and cumin forward. The meat has a pleasant smoky char and there’s a nice contrast between tender thigh and little crunchy fried bits. The nasi biryani-like rice is outstanding: perfectly seasoned, turmeric-laced yellow basmati rice with a deep savouriness from being cooked in broth and spices. It’s a great flavour base for the whole bowl.
It’s not finished without the sauce, though, which is one of the major components of the Halal Guys experience. Just like the original, there are two here, a creamy white sauce and a spicy red one, both made fresh each day. The original NYC stall’s mystery white sauce is a beguiling, fairly sweet mayo-and-yoghurt mix, amped up with parsley. The version here, which we’re told is made with more yoghurt, is much tangier and therefore a bit more grown-up than the street food original, which is sweeter and more mayo-forward. It’s tasty, if not as comforting as the original.
We think the extra yoghurt is probably to offset the intense heat of the red sauce, which is a secret-recipe concoction apparently made with various kinds of chilis. Based on sambal, it’s much spicier than the original but it’s hot in a similarly one-note way. It’s also a lot chunkier where the original is smooth and liquid. Flavour-wise, we pick up lots of dried chili but little else. Combined, however, the two sauces make a peppy orange one that’s got a nice mix of tang and spice, and does a good job of bringing the flavours of the bowl together.
The major departure from the original is their pulled beef, where the Halal Guys do a doner-style lamb. Shaun tells us they picked beef over lamb to cater to local tastes but may offer a lamb option in future. This is a four-hour braise made from a family recipe of Shaun’s, laced with various Indian spices, chipotle peppers, and Mexican-style adobo sauce. It’s good: slightly sweet, and a little tangy, with a warm kiss of chili and spice. Paired with the sauces, over that yummy rice, it really goes into a flavour overload, not too far from a Mexican burrito bowl. It’s not quite got the simplicity of street-style doner meat — again this offering feels a little more “grown-up” — but we still find it hearty and satisfying.
We really like the falafel here. Fresh out of the kitchen, it’s got a great crunchy exterior and lovely, fluffy herb and chickpea centre with a rich earthy flavour. Because they’re so rich, three of these over rice make a very substantial meal.
They also come on their own as a side, slathered with the yoghurty sauce.
If you think the rice bowl is a bit too hefty, know that we quite like the pita pocket option as well. The bread, which they get from a supplier, is nice and pillowy, and a good vehicle for the saucy fillings, though we still think it’s all best over the savoury rice. Each bowl comes with wedges of pita anyway, so you get the best of both worlds.
The side dishes here are basically crunchy fried things to slather sauce over. The clear standout is the Yawn Balls, battered mashed yam mixed filled with prawns (yawn= yam+ prawn, hur hur). Name aside, it’s very good: think a crunchy on the outside, creamy and savoury-sweet on the inside yam ring in ball form. The prawns provide a nice textural contrast and welcome seafood flavour. Slathered with the ubiquitous sauce, it makes for a very comforting snack.
If you’ve got room for dessert, they’re very proud of their Cheesecake Shooters, a trio of, um, yoghurty pureed cheesecake each one laced with a different fruit sauce. It’s a little gimmicky and overly sweet, but maybe better for the ’gram than for the extra calories.
The meaty rice bowls here are hearty and tasty. It’s not exactly like the New York original, but the concept still holds: comforting, flavourful and spice-laden mouthfuls of meat over rice, with a few surprisingly good sides and excellent falafel to boot. One bowl will fill you up and then some, which makes its slightly hefty price worth it. That, and its trendy Manhattan-inspired vibe makes this hipster joint a standout from the more staid-looking and expensive Middle-Eastern tourist traps serving somewhat similar nosh just round the corner.
48 Arab St, S199745. Open Wed-Sunday noon-3.30pm; 6pm-9.30pm. www.overricesg.com
Photos: Alvin Teo
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