Halal Cart-style Chicken and Rice
While living in New York, I never got that into halal-cart chicken and rice. There was a cart slinging the stuff outside my home subway stop, and every now and then I picked it up as an easy dinner and enjoyed it, but I never went out of my way get it. I have a brother-in-law that absolutely loves the stuff though, and with the expansion of Halal Guys into his locale of Houston, his enthusiasm has only grown and I've found it contagious and am personally more excited to get chicken and rice now than I ever was before. When looking for quarantine cooking projects, halal cart-style chicken and rice quickly became a front runner because I had never made it before and it seemed like it would keep me busy for an afternoon, the fact that it turned out incredible was just a plus.
I never gave much thought to what actually goes into the flavoring of the chicken, and when I was researching recipes and settled on Kenji's, I was a little surprised that the marinade felt much more influenced by Greek food than Middle Eastern. I guess it kind of makes sense that it's a combo of oil, oregano, garlic, coriander, and lemon that adorns chicken thighs though—the other meat in a halal cart combo is gyro.
After combining the marinade ingredients in a blender, I poured half of the sauce over boneless, skinless chicken thighs I had placed in a large Ziploc bag. Then into the fridge it went—with this highly acidic marinade, shorter soaking times are better, so you're looking at one to four hours tops, which is the perfect amount of time to put together the rest of the accompaniments.
The one thing Kenji's recipe was missing for me was the hot sauce. The original recipe I was following just said to use a bottled hot sauce for this, but that red sauce Halal Guys slings is more fiery and less acidic than what comes out of most hot sauce bottles, so I thought it warranted the at-home treatment. To match something that packs that incredibly spicy punch, I started with chiles de arbol, which I soaked in water, then transferred to a blender whole. I added in some other seasonings like garlic, paprika, coriander, and cumin to give the sauce some depth, and then soaking water, oil, and vinegar for the liquid. After pureeing everything together, my sauce wasn't the deep, earthy red the Halal Guys' one is, but it was incredibly hot, which was the main objective. I felt good that just a dap of this stuff would give the perfect heat to the final dish.
Next up was the all important white sauce, the stuff that really makes halal cart chicken unique. From what I can tell, if I were to make a copycat of Halal Guys white sauce, it would be mayo with some extra lemon juice, black pepper, and a scant amount of sugar. Kenji's recipe featured a 50/50 mix of Greek yogurt and added parsley into the mix, and I settled somewhere between the two with more mayo than Greek yogurt, and ditching the parsley because I personally have never had this style of white sauce come with anything green in it before. The end result tasted on the money to me.
The rice was next up, which I actually made right after I had lit the fire to cook the chicken. In those twenty minutes it took for the charcoal to all ignite, I toasted turmeric and cumin in melted butter, then added in the basmati rice and cooked until it started to turn translucent. With the rice sufficiently seasoned and toasty now, I added in chicken stock for the liquid, along with some salt, and let the rice mixture simmer, covered, for 15 minutes. Once done, I removed it from the heat and my fire was ready for grilling.
The chicken cooking method is really where this recipe deviates from what you'd actually get at a cart or restaurant. The cooking in those scenarios happens on a flat top, but I wanted a grilling project, so I decided to see how it faired utilizing fire. I started the cooking by grilling the whole thighs until done throughout, and in the ten minutes that took, they picked up some nice color.
The next step may feel a little odd, but it's meant to simulate what's happening when the chicken is cooked in the cart. In that environment, the chicken is cooked once, then chopped, and set in the corner to sit and wait for orders. Then, when that happens, a single portion is divided out and recooked. So there's a double cooking process and also time where the chicken picks up more flavor as it rests in a pile together, the liquid from off all the juicy thighs melding together. To get something similar to that, I chopped up the chicken thighs once fully cooked and placed them in a bowl with the remaining marinade. I then tossed everything together and put the chicken back on the grill.
To help keep the chicken from falling through the grates during this second cook, I kept all the cut pieces massed together and flipped them occasionally for even cooking. After just a couple minutes the chicken pieces were hot throughout and picked up a little more color, at which point I placed them back in the bowl and moved on to the next thing.
With bread in short supply, I was pretty sure I wasn't going to be able to find my favorite Greek pita in the store and this was going to be the day I learned how to make it at home, but low and behold, they had it in stock, so I picked up a package. The pita needs to be reheated though to make it soft and pliable, which I did on the grill, the hot fire only taking about 30 to 60 seconds to get it into its warm and tender state.
Now I had all the disparate components done and it was time to assemble them into the master plate you'd get from a cart. This started by laying out a generous portion of rice and topping with chicken pieces. Next I filled most of the of the remaining space with shredded iceberg lettuce and topped that with diced tomatoes, nestled pita slice into lone open pocket in the bowl, and then added on the white sauce a small dabs of the hot sauce. I surprised myself with just how close this tasted to the real thing. While the chicken is not normally grilled, the overall flavor was spot on and melded great with the creamy and tangy white sauce. Even the small amount of hot sauce you see in the photo above was more than enough to bring a fiery touch to the entire dish, which was put into check a little by the white sauce, but more by the buttery and well spiced rice. There are so many flavors going on in these three pieces of the dish that it takes some bites of the neutral lettuce, tomato, and pita to balance everything out and make it taste whole. All-in-all, the recipe took less effort and time than I original thought when first looking at it, so this may become not just a time-filling quarantine type of meal for me, but something to put into the regular rotation.
Halal Cart-style Chicken and Rice
- Yield 4 servings
- Prep 40 Minutes
- Inactive 1 Hour
- Cook 30 Minutes
- Total 2 Hours 10 Minutes
- For the Spicy Sauce
- 24 small dried hot red chilies, such as chiles de arbol
- 6 tablespoons water reserved from soaking chiles
- 2 cloves garlic
- 1 tablespoon olive oil
- 1 tablespoon white vinegar
- 2 teaspoons paprika
- 1/2 teaspoon ground coriander
- 1/2 teaspoon ground cumin
- 1/2 teaspoon Kosher salt
- For the White Sauce
- 2/3 cup mayonnaise
- 1/3 cup Greek yogurt
- 2 tablespoons white vinegar
- 1 tablespoon sugar
- 1 teaspoon lemon juice
- Kosher salt
- Freshly ground black pepper
- For the Chicken
- 1/4 cup olive oil
- 2 tablespoons freshly squeezed lemon juice
- 1 tablespoon roughly chopped fresh oregano
- 1/2 teaspoon ground coriander
- 1 tablespoon finely minced fresh garlic (about 3 medium cloves)
- Kosher salt
- Freshly ground black pepper
- 2 pounds boneless, skinless chicken thighs, trimmed of excess fat
- For the Rice
- 2 tablespoons unsalted butter
- 1/2 teaspoon turmeric
- 1/4 teaspoon ground cumin
- 1 1/2 cups long-grain or Basmati rice, rinsed
- 2 1/2 cups chicken broth
- 1 teaspoon kosher salt
- For Serving
- 1 head iceberg lettuce, shredded
- 1 large tomato, diced
- 2 pieces of pocketless pita bread
- To make the spicy sauce: Place chilis in a small bowl and cover with 1 1/2 cups of boiling water. Let sit until chilies have softened, about 10 minutes. Transfer chilies to the jar of a blender and add in 6 tablespoons of the soaking liquid, garlic cloves, olive oil, vinegar, paprika, coriander, cumin, and salt. Puree until completely smooth. Transfer sauce to an airtight container and place in refrigerator until ready to use.
- To make the white sauce: In a medium bowl, whisk together mayonnaise, yogurt, vinegar, sugar, and lemon juice. Season with salt and pepper to taste. Transfer sauce to an airtight container and place in refrigerator until ready to use.
- To make the chicken: Place olive oil, lemon juice, oregano, coriander, and garlic in the jar of a blender and puree until smooth. Season with salt and pepper to taste. Place chicken thighs in a large Ziploc bag and pour in half of the marinade. Seal bag and toss to evenly coat chicken in sauce. Place bag in refrigerator for one hour, up to four. Transfer remaining marinade to an airtight container and place in refrigerator until ready to use.
- To make the rice: Melt butter in medium saucepan over medium heat. When foaming subsides, stir in tumeric and cumin and cook until fragrant, but not browned, about 30 seconds. Add in rice and cook, stirring frequently, until grains are toasted and starting to turn transparent, about 4 minutes. Add in chicken broth and bring to a boil. Reduce heat to a simmer, season with salt to taste, then cover pan and let cook undisturbed for 15 minutes. Remove from heat and let rest for 15 minutes more prior to serving.
- Light one chimney full of charcoal. When all the charcoal is lit and covered with gray ash, pour out and spread the coals evenly over entire surface of charcoal grate. Set cooking grate in place, cover grill, and allow to preheat for 5 minutes. Clean and oil grilling grate. Place chicken on grill and cook, flipping occasionally, until well browned and cooked through, about 10 minutes total. Transfer chicken to a cutting board and roughly chop. Place chicken in a medium bowl and add in reserved marinade; toss to coat. Place chicken back on grill and cook until warmed through, about 2 minutes more. Transfer chicken back to bowl.
- Place pitas on grill and cook until warm and pliable, about 1 minute. Transfer to a cutting board and slice each pita into 8 pieces.
- To serve: Divide the rice, lettuce, tomato, and toasted pita bread evenly among four shallow bowls or plates. Pile the chicken on top of the rice. Top the chicken and rice with white sauce and hot sauce to taste. Serve immediately.
Adapted from Serious Eats