When Mohamed Goubaa opened his Mexican halal restaurant in Torresdale about two and a half years ago, he started off with a soft opening, expecting only 50 people to show up. “We don’t have that many types of exotic halal mixes, especially in Philly, one of the largest Muslim populations in America,” he says. “When you eat Halal, it’s almost always Syrian, Lebanese, Arabic, or Desi food. Not Mexican. “
Goubaa, an Algerian American (and also owns a medical lab and a food truck called Goubaa Grub), is quick to say that his food is not an authentic Mexican per se: instead, he calls it “an American mix of Mexican food – that’s halal too. “He’s not a chef. When he first started, he used YouTube and Google to learn how to make the Mexican food he devoured in Philly.
Over 150 people came to the soft opening of the Don Panchito Halal Mexican Grill, and soon after, Goubaa was able to hire a Mexican chef. Goubaa wanted to share his love for Mexican food with everyone, especially the Muslim community.
Like most Philadelphia restaurants, halal establishments like Goubaa’s and Manakeesh Cafe Bakery & Grill in West Philly faced setbacks when the pandemic began. But when the second Ramadan arrives in the middle of COVID-19, both are back on track and preparing for the holy month again.
The general manager of Manakeesh, Adam Chatila, and Don Panchitos Goubaa are both Muslims, which means that the name of halal – meat prepared according to Islamic law – is important to them. And making halal food available to thousands of other Muslims (and non-Muslims) living in Philly is important to them – especially during the holy month of Ramadan.
Muslims make up about 1 percent of Philadelphia’s population, according to a 2014 Pew Research Center study. And a large Muslim population needs halal restaurants where those observing the month of Ramadan – when Muslims fast from sunrise to sunset to increase their devotion to God – enjoy a variety of options during iftar, the fasting dinner can.
“Ramadan is a really great scene here in Manakeesh because you get a feel for what it’s like in Middle Eastern countries,” says Chatila, a Lebanese American. “We close during the day to observe the tradition and open in front of the iftar to take orders. You see people rushing in and getting ready to eat. Then we distribute dates to the whole crowd. “
In the run-up to Ramadan this month, Chatila’s mother is decorating the cafe again to remind herself and everyone else of her Lebanese culture, and the staff is preparing a special Ramadan menu. Manakeesh has several Ramadan specials so people can experience traditional foods from Lebanon and other countries during the holy month. Some dishes include sambousek, or meat pastries; Kabsa, spicy rice with chicken; and mansef, a Jordanian dish with large lamb chunks, cooked in yogurt sauce with yellow rice.
“We’re a Lebanese restaurant, but we have a diverse team from all over the world. They bring their own culture here and we let them be adventurous and try different things, ”says Chatila. “One of our chefs makes a traditional Egyptian dish called koshary, which is made with rice and noodles – it works – and roasted red pepper tomato sauce. And every day in Ramadan we have traditional sweets like Knafeh. ”
Goubaa’s beliefs and business go hand in hand. Throughout the year, his restaurant makes care kits and meals that are distributed to those who need them. During last year’s worst pandemic, Don Panchito provided Halal Mexican Grill staff in more than 35 hospitals in just one month. Goubaa says the restaurant plans to continue this through this Ramadan as it is mandatory for Muslims to help others, especially during the holy month. He and his restaurant will sponsor masjids (mosques) Friday through Sunday and provide them with free plates of quesadillas and tacos for iftar. And Monday through Thursday they will work with local supermarkets to distribute refugee packages for refugees and unsafe food.
“Allah has commanded us to purify our wealth and the best way to do this is to give zakat,” says Goubaa, referring to the Islamic obligation to give some of your wealth to charity. “Zakat puts out bad deeds like water extinguishes fire. And in the month of Ramadan, our good deeds multiply. We grew up on that. We firmly believe in that. “
Ramadan is a special time in restaurants too. There is a quiet area on the second floor; Here Goubaa hosts Tarawih – special nightly prayers during Ramadan – and staff can take a break, read the Koran or pray. The Koran is played out loud in the back of the kitchen, and sometimes it can be heard in front. When non-Muslims come in and ask for it, Goubaa explains the concept of Ramadan and Halal and what the month of forgiveness means. Special packages are even presented to educate the people. The restaurant also hands out free desserts.
Following Islamic guidelines, like replacing steak with pork, as the restaurant does in their barbacoa recipe, is very important to Goubaa and his business.
“The restaurant is more than” What is Halal? “He says.” It’s about giving the Muslim ummah – the Muslim people – the ability to believe in themselves and have the strength to say, ‘Wow, this is a Muslim-run business’ because we don’t have many, “he says.” I want them to see that there are other Muslims [who] are successful and prevail. “
The same goes for Chatila and its restaurant, just a few kilometers away. Feeding others has always been a priority for him, but it’s even more so during the holy month in a global pandemic.
“Ramadan is a time for us to be patient and [it] teaches us many lessons. As a Muslim, you feel blessed this month, ”Chatila says. “Lots of childhood memories surround Ramadan: staying up late, eating a lot, spending time with family, the nice smells of the kitchen … and seeing people eating together and being hpy.”