When Asma Bayunus moved to Austin from a small town in Minnesota 20 years ago, she had few halal options. “When I got here, I only found three halal restaurants: Shalimar, Byblos and Alborz,” she recalls. “They’re gone now, but it seems like there’s now an option for almost every craving within a 30-minute drive.”
Asma Bayunus in the Inchin Bamboo Garden (Photo by Yasmin Diallo Turk)
“The dining table is a common denominator — everyone loves to eat — and when I go to places that offer options to eat, it feels like they’ve built a bigger table, and I appreciate that.” – Asma Bayunus
The Bayunus, who grew up in the Gulf state of Oman, has always eaten only halal food, i.e. meat products that are subject to a set of rules designed to ensure the health of the slaughtered animal and compliance with Islamic religious regulations. This practice is also known as Zabihah. “It was something that was very important to my parents. It was always the only option in our parents’ house growing up,” she says. Although there are many practices she did not retain from her conservative Muslim upbringing, she continues to hold onto halal food as an important connection with her parents, which she has also passed on to her teenage son. “I was fine when there were only three halal restaurants, but when I had my son I realized that having more options was important for him too. We are fortunate that not only are there halal restaurants, but there are also mainstream restaurants that have halal options. The dining table is a common denominator — everyone loves to eat — and when I go to places that offer options I can eat, it feels like they built a bigger table, and I appreciate that.”
While many places with limited Halal offerings don’t necessarily advertise that their briskets, burgers, or high-end steaks are Halal, there is a loyal community that searches for Halal options and shares this information online, particularly through the website Zabihah. com. Founded in the 1990s by ex-Austinite Shahed Amanullah, Zabihah is the largest crowdsourced halal options website in the country and the world.
The website led Bayunus to her current favorite spot, Inchin’s Bamboo Garden Indo-Chinese fusion restaurant in Round Rock. The current franchisees are a hospitable couple; Her son-in-law cooks everything fresh in the back. Bayunus’ top choices on Inchin’s menu are Chicken 65, chicken salad wraps, tandoori wings and Mongolian beef.
While Bayunus has grown a lot in Austin’s halal food scene over two decades, Sana Khan has been living in Chicago as of 2019, or pretty much whatever you wanted.” When she moved to Austin, she took to Instagram to browse halal spots for Trying to find but didn’t find much She relied heavily on Zabihah.com to find out what was available and began documenting her journey as she explored Austin’s Halal offerings on her Instagram account @AustinHalalEats. She is also the admin of the Halal Food Austin group on Facebook.
Sana Khan (Courtesy of Sana Khan)
What Khan appreciates most about Austin’s halal offerings is the wide variety. While Chicago is used to having many options for cuisines from Muslim countries, Austin offers more variety with Mexican-Pakistani fusion at Urban Turban, Texan-style barbecue at Alzer’s BBQ, and halal chicken and waffles at Longhorn Chicken. What she would like to find is authentic Hyderabadi Mexican, Korean and Indian food.
Nora Altiti at Usta Kababgy, with Lahmajun (Photo by Yasmin Diallo Turk)
As well as regulars like Bayunus and Khan, who are passionate about halal food, others like mother-of-two Nora Altiti prefer to eat halal when it’s available, but don’t eat it exclusively. Altiti was born in Austin and spent her teenage years in Jordan with her extended family. When Altiti wants the taste of home cooking from Jordan, she calls out an order to Usta Kababgy: “It’s the taste of family reunions and time with my Tayta [grandmother].” Located in the Lamar/Rundberg area, known as Austin’s International District, Usta Kababgy bills itself as a halal barbecue destination. Although the Arabic term for the way the food is prepared, mashawi, can be translated as grilling, the food is cooked using a charcoal cooking method more akin to grilling.
The Adana Kabab (l) and Turkish coffee at Usta Kababgy (Photo by Yasmin Diallo Turk)
Nora’s favorites on the Usta Kababgy menu are lahmajun (thinly rolled flatbread with a generous layer of well-seasoned ground beef), Adana and Iraqi kababs (both with a mix of lamb and beef). Although she usually orders her food to go, her meal at the restaurant isn’t ready until she’s had a cup of Turkish coffee. It is a strong coffee that can be enjoyed sweet or unsweetened with a thin layer of foam on top; The bottom of the cup has a layer of coffee grounds that remain in the cup. Food is casually served on paper plates with plastic tableware, but the Turkish coffee is beautifully served in tiny zamak-encased cups.
Inchin’s bamboo garden (Photo by Yasmin Diallo Turk)
Arfan Ahmed, franchisee of Inchin’s Bamboo Garden, said he has seen a 35 percent increase in customers at his operation specifying Halal over the past two years, with about half currently requesting Halal. “Besides religious reasons, halal meat is cleaner and healthier. We have a growing Muslim population in Austin with fewer halal options compared to big cities like Houston and Dallas, so a halal menu is important to serve the community,” he says. Austin has an estimated Muslim population of more than 30,000 people. Many of them are preparing for Ramadan (the month of daytime fasting) in April and the holiday of Eid al-Fitr (celebration of the end of the month of fasting) in May. Ahmed says he expects an increase in both takeout and restaurant dining during this first Ramadan as Austin’s COVID risk guidelines are currently low.
This Ramadan, Bayunus expects to visit several of Austin’s halal spots. Reflecting on the expansion of halal options today compared to when she arrived in Austin two decades ago, she said, “I feel like there are so many excellent options in Austin right now. I can order almost anything I want.”
Five halal meal recommendations in Austin
Almarah Mediterranean cuisine (Courtesy of Sana Khan)
• Almarah Mezza Platter Almarah Mediterranean cuisine (12129 RR 620 N. No. 450, almarahgrill.com)
• Kabab Adana at Usta Kababgy Halal Barbecue (9717 N. Lamar Ste. C-2, ustakababgy.com)
• Chicken 65 on Inchin’s bamboo garden (3107 N. I-35, bamboo-gardens.com/austin-tx-2)
• Chicken tikka tacos at Urban turban (4257 Gattis School Rd., Round Rock, the-urban-turban-halal-restaurant.business.site)
• Meat eater pizza at Arpeggio grill (6619 Airport, www.arpeggiogrill.com)