- By Wyatt Williams For the AJC
Selling food on a street corner has long been one of the quickest ways to start a business, though it is hard work. The overhead is low, but that means one must brave the elements and stake claim to turf. Few last long in the business. Every once in a while, though, a street food vendor becomes so successful that they leave the street to sell food indoors, just like everybody else. In Atlanta, two examples of street food to brick-and-mortar success have recently opened.
The first comes from New York City. The three men who founded the Halal Guys were once classic New York hot dog vendors, bored and unimpressed with their own wares. When they switched to selling gyro platters and pita sandwiches, largely to Muslim cabdrivers at first, they created a hit that continues to draw a legendary line in Midtown Manhattan. Since they decided to franchise the brand, dozens of Halal Guys restaurants have opened across the world.
Their new location on the corner of Chamblee Tucker Road and Buford Highway is a far cry from a street cart. The bright red and yellow awnings are polished, the plate glass windows are clean, the tables are plenty, and the counter is staffed with what seems like nearly a dozen eager employees at any given time. Step up to order and you’ll have only two big decisions to make. You either get a pita sandwich or a platter and you top it with either beef gyro, chicken, a combo of the two, or falafel.
The pita is the smaller option of the two, but it still makes for a substantial meal. I like it loaded with the falafel, whose noticeably crunchy exterior here contrasts nicely with the fluffy dough of the pita. Texture aside, the falafel could use a little help in the flavor department, as it tastes more of starchy chickpeas than herbaceous seasoning, but it still more or less hits the spot.
The classics here, though, are the beef gyro and chicken carved into little chunks and topped on an enormous platter, probably enough for two meals. If you, like me, think the best bite of gyro is the one that got caramelized and crispy right before getting carved from the spit, you’re probably out of luck at the Halal Guys. The good news is that the chicken is marinated with juicy, herby flavors and the gyro is seasoned with a nice kick of pepper. The bad news is that the priority here is volume, so the meats get cooked rapidly into easy-to-serve gray piles to be plated neatly alongside the yellow rice, iceberg lettuce and pale tomato chunks on a platter.
Sound a little underwhelming? Well, it would be if not for the sauce.
In the end, the Halal Guys is all about the sauce, and they know it. At the counter, they’ll ask you if you want white sauce or hot sauce. Say yes to both. What you’ll get is an enormous zigzagging topping of white sauce, enough to cover more or less the whole platter, and one dark red line of hot. That’s the right proportion of both.
The Halal Guys’ white sauce is legendary, mayonnaise-based but mysteriously, addictively spiced. The hot sauce is unlike anything served in fast food today, a dense, impressively hot spread of peppers packed with a lemony brightness. It packs a serious, harissa-esque punch, so be careful if you ask for extra. For the white sauce, there’s no such thing as too much. As you eat, an employee will probably walk around the tables asking if anyone needs more white sauce. Almost everyone says yes.
Atlanta has its own street food success story, too. Founded in 2010, Yumbii was a pioneer in the local food truck scene and has since become a reliable staple at events and parks around the city. Serving a now-familiar blend of Korean flavors on Mexican-style dishes like tacos and burritos, Yumbii earned a loyal following for good reason.
Yumbii’s location on Peachtree Road, a couple of doors down from the Black Bear Tavern, shows a little sign of evolution. The menu has expanded to encompass a more Chipotle-like set of menu options, including a rice bowl, salad, burrito, quesadilla, or taco with your choice of meat. A plate of nachos piled high with almost every ingredient in the kitchen is on the menu, as is a Philly-style sandwich.
The best options are surely the two most popular over the years: bright, chopped rib-eye beef or lightly spicy shredded pork shoulder. Both are styled after Korean classics, the marinated beef and spicy gochujang styles of bulgogi. With a little chopped romaine on a taco, both stand up on their own. A pile of slightly sweet sesame dusted fries make for a nice treat on the side.
Other options can be misfires. The burritos I’ve tasted are packed too tight and small, so that all the ingredients taste dry and chewy. Because the food is made in the back, rather than at the counter like Chipotle, the rice bowl loses the highly customizable appeal that made it such a modern staple.
The more indulgent items, like a quesadilla or a Philly full of rib-eye beef and Sriracha queso, are more successful, but mostly just because of the pleasures of melted cheese. I’ve found the key at Yumbii, like many other quick-service restaurants, is to special order the best parts. There’s never enough cucumber kimchi in their portions, so ask for as much as they’ll give you. The sesame fries are pretty good when dipped in the house-made chipotle ketchup, but they’re even better dipped in the Korean-style barbecue sauce. No matter what you order, you’ll want to add a cup of Sriracha queso on the side for frequent dipping. Some places are just all about the sauce.