It all started with a small food truck in Philadelphia. On the corner of 38th and Spruce Street, Saad had a mission. He wanted to bring halal food to a city with a huge Muslim population and limited options. Twenty-seven years later, Saad’s Halal Restaurant is very busy.
The rectangular restaurant’s décor is definitely Middle-Eastern inspired. Indoor palm trees, gold lamps that hung from the ceiling, mirrors and artwork framed in gold. It reminded me of those Arabian movies back in the day. The sheikh who lived a relaxing life in a lavish tent. Except this is Saad’s movie and his restaurant is an oasis of Halal in The city of brotherly love.
Saad was transparent from the get-go. He took me behind the counter and showed me some raw chicken cubes. They were marinating in his secret sauce and would later become his famous sandwich, The “Chicken Maroush”. As he flipped the cubes on the hot grill, Saad recalled his past. He was originally from Lebanon where his family owned a restaurant. When he moved to Philadelphia, he could not find any halal meat. Being a devout Muslim, he slaughtered the animals himself.
“I was like a little cowboy. I flipped the little cow or sheep, tied him up and sometimes I had to skin them,” he smiled.
I sat down with two of his famous sandwiches: The Chicken Maroush and The Philly Cheesesteak.
The Chicken Maroush was inspired by a restaurant in Lebanon called “Maroush”. Instead of pieces of meat and pita bread, Saad used chicken cubes and hoagie rolls. He finished the sandwich in a panini press. The first thing that struck the tongue was the strong garlic taste from the sauce. There was not too much garlic where it burned but more than usual where it was pleasant, like garlic fries. The chicken cubes were moist and tender but also had a nice sear from the grill. The tomatoes, pickles and sautéed onions provided some softness and moisture to balance the crunchiness of the roll. Delicious but the sandwich should come with some Listerine on the side.
Saad’s Philly Cheesesteak won an award for “Best Takeout in Philadelphia” against five other restaurants. His sandwich is unique because it is based off the west-side version of the cheesesteak instead of the classic south-side. He cuts his strips of steak into bite-sized pieces and instead of cheap grocery store cheese, Saad uses quality, American halal cheese. I tasted the difference in one bite. “Unreal” is the word that popped into my head as I swallowed. The thin strips of steak were perfectly cooked. It was soft and not tough like I expect when I eat cheesesteaks. The sandwich contained just enough of the onions, green peppers and mushrooms to compliment the steak but not take the focus off it. It was greasy, it was messy and it was heavenly.
The sandwiches were massive but I managed to finish them. Each one weighed around two pounds. As I hung in the limbo between consciousness and a food coma, I understood why Saad does not allow cell phones. These sandwiches are an experience! Focus on the flavors instead of Facebook. It all started with a food truck and a mission. Mission complete, Saad.
Editor’s Note: Sameer Sarmast is the President and Executive Producer of Sameer’s Eats, the first and only Halal food review web blog and video channel on YouTube. Sameer has been recognized by local and national media outlets as well as the U.S. State Department for his efforts in highlighting Halal cuisine. Sameer resides and works full time in New Jersey as a Vice President in Wealth Management for a major financial institution. When he isn’t working, he loves to travel and spend time with his friends and family. Follow him on twitter @SameersEats. The views expressed here are his own.