Amongst a seemingly endless array of boutique-style eateries and gourmet shops in Carroll Gardens, there is a standalone food truck, Habibi Halal Food, which enjoys a small, but steady stream of customers. Mahmoud Muhamed, of Egypt, serves no-frills dishes with a joyful demeanor that compensates for his simple command of English.
“Give me rice, salad, chicken,” said a small Hispanic woman after studying the graphic menu on the side of the food truck. Overhead the menu scrolls across an LED marquee. The words “EGYPTIAN GUYS, LAMB, GYRO, SHISKABAB, CHK WINGS, SODA, HOT DOG, WATER” advertise to people leaving the F/G train station or walking through the neighborhood. The menu is punctuated with the a cartoon of an Egyptian boy and girl holding hands, followed by the words “BE HAPPY!!!”
“Rice, salad, chicken. Okay,” Mahmoud Muhamed confirmed. Right away the 36-year-old server gets to work in his food truck, which is about the size of a two sedans stacked on top of one another. Muhamed stands inside, surrounded by silver metal, his back to the open door where all the heat escapes.
On the hot, flat metal cooking surface, he places several pieces of the pre-seasoned meat requested. After a few seconds of sizzling, he starts hammering away, mincing the meat into increasingly smaller pieces with the edge of a semicircle-shaped spatula. While the meat continues to heat up, he reaches for a Styrofoam container and packs it with rice and lettuce. By the time he’s done, the chicken is ready. He places it in the container and tops off the dish with sautéed onions and hot sauce. His customer declines to add the special white sauce, a creamy, yogurt-like, flavor-enhancing dressing. “You sure?” he asks. She is sure.
Carroll Garden’s Smith Street is a road lined with high-end specialty food stores where one can walk into a shop that exclusively sells handmade noodles or into another for a $9 milkshake. In a place where you will be hard-pressed to find a single item under $5 dollars, the Halal Brothers food cart on Smith and 2nd Place offers full meals for less than the price of most desserts. Customers can enjoy a gyro for only $5 or a plate of rice and meat for $6.
Muhamed has been living in Jersey City, New Jersey, for the last 10 months, commuting to work in Brooklyn. When asked about his schedule he says, “I work seven and one hour,” using his index finger pointed to the sky and making the shape of a circle to indicate that he has a one-hour break.
Between customers, he cleans up his station by scrubbing the stove to removed burned morsels of food from previous orders. He relights the skewer that roasts the block of lamb’s meat.
Muhamed himself seems to find happiness in the work. He speaks as much as possible to his customers, even more so to any who speak Arabic. “I am a new American; my English is no good,” he confesses. When he finishes with a glove, he turns it inside out, fills it with air and pops it before throwing it out. He smiles and looks around to see if anyone else would join him in the momentary delight.
Muhamed plans return to his wife and family in Egypt in January and return in March, where he will be surrounded by his son, wife, five sisters and thirty-four nieces and nephews. It’s too cold for him to work in New York during those months. During this time, he says he will sleep, but for now he is enjoying employment. “I like to work and eat,” he says of his job. “No work in America, no money.