One food truck is breaking down the wall between Islamic dietary restrictions and traditional southern barbecue by serving up a halal-approved plate of Texas-style barbecue.
Chopped n’ Smoked is a food truck owned and conceived by Robert West, a native Houstonian and convert to Islam. The truck, which opened in March, is already a hit with locals and spreading like smoke. According to West, the response has been tremendous, with people flying hundreds of miles to get some of their famous food.
“We did not anticipate that people would want it this badly,” West said. “We’re having people fly in from Connecticut, Portland, California and driving in from San Antonio and Dallas just to get some of our food.”
Many of West’s friends never experienced real barbecue because they observed certain food restrictions in accordance with Islam. West knew there was a vacuum in the Muslim community that could be filled.
“Most of my Muslim friends have lived in this city their whole lives, and are 100 percent Texan,” said West. “But they’ve never really had barbecue, unless it was in someone’s backyard. I was outraged.”
At the University of Houston, students queue for classics like brisket plates, potato salad and creamed corn piled high. Muslim and non-Muslim students alike rave about the food, according to UH junior Faheem Bilal, who frequents Chopped n’ Smoked.
“I think it’s pretty awesome that halal foods are taking on regional influences,” Bilal said. “I hadn’t ever eaten Texas style barbecue before Chopped n’ Smoked.”
The truck usually sells out of its more popular menu items quickly, like the creamed corn and brisket plate, according to Bilal.
“Well, I can tell you for a fact that Chopped n’ Smoked is popular, especially with Muslim students,” Bilal said. “If you don’t get there in time or come later at lunch, all the best options are sold out.”
For some students on campus, dietary restrictions make eating with at least some variety difficult.
“I don’t think there are enough campus options for students who eat specific diets like halal,” Bilal said. “And the few places that do offer halal options get pretty routine after a couple of semesters.”
The students’ struggle to find a balance between eating halal and enjoying southern tradition is one reflected in the larger population in Houston, according to West.
“People who eat strictly halal have a real issue finding places that don’t handle non-halal meat,” West said. “Even if a surface has touched non-halal food, some Muslims won’t eat there.”
For some Houstonians, a halal barbecue joint seems like a long time coming.
“It makes sense to have halal barbecue considering how many Muslims live in Texas, especially in Houston,” said Sarah Varghese, UH alumna and Chopped n’ Smoked regular. “I don’t think the time has ever really called for it like now.”
West and his team are helping to break down cultural assumptions, according to Varghese.
“Food is such a big part of the culture here in the south,” Varghese said. “If you are excluded from that, it alienates that specific community.”
Chopped n’ Smoked is about more than barbecue: it’s about bringing together a community, according to Varghese.
“A lot of my friends have never eaten Texas-style barbecue before because they’re Muslim, but they feel just as bit as Texan as people who don’t eat halal,” Varghese said. “So why shouldn’t they be able to be apart of that?”
The Pew Research Center reports that Houston’s population is 1.2 percent Muslim, which is above the national percentage, and predicted to grow.
“I’m not surprised,” said Ameer Abuhalimeh, executive director of the Islamic Da’wah Center in downtown Houston in an interview with the Houston Chronicle. “I think (the number of Muslims) may be even higher. I’ve seen it increasing, growing dramatically.”
Culture collision is inevitable with such a diverse population, and food is one of the biggest indicators of this process, according to West.
“The point is that we’re all the same,” West said. “Muslims are the same as everyone else. We want to sit and eat barbecue with our families, too.”
“It’s just good traditional Texas barbecue, and you don’t have to be Muslim to enjoy that,” West said.