When Mohamed Goubaa opened his halal Mexican restaurant in Torresdale about two and a half years ago, he started with a soft opening, and he anticipated just 50 people would show up. “We don’t have that many types of exotic halal mixes, especially in Philly, being one of the largest Muslim populations in America,” he says. “If you eat halal, it’s almost always Syrian, Lebanese, Arab, or Desi food. Not Mexican.”
Goubaa, who is Algerian American (and also owns a medical laboratory and a food cart called Goubaa Grub), is quick to say that his food is not authentic Mexican, per se: Instead, he calls it “an American mix to Mexican food — that is also halal.” He’s not a chef, so when he began, he used YouTube and Google to learn how to make the Mexican food he grew up devouring in Philly.
Over 150 people ended up coming to Don Panchito Halal Mexican Grill’s soft opening, and soon after, Goubaa was able to hire a Mexican chef. Goubaa wanted to share his love for Mexican food with everyone, but especially with the Muslim community.
Like most restaurants in Philadelphia, halal establishments like Goubaa’s and like Manakeesh Cafe Bakery & Grill in West Philly faced setbacks when the pandemic began. But as the second Ramadan in the midst of COVID-19 arrives, both are back on track and preparing for the holy month once again.
Manakeesh’s general manager, Adam Chatila, and Don Panchito’s Goubaa are both Muslim, which means the designation of halal — meat prepared according to Islamic law — is important to them. And it’s important to them to make halal food accessible to the thousands of other Muslims (and non-Muslims) living in Philly — especially during the holy month of Ramadan.
Muslims account for about 1 percent of Philadelphia’s population, according to a 2014 Pew Research Center study. And a large Muslim population necessitates halal restaurants, where those who observe the month of Ramadan — when Muslims fast from sunrise to sunset to heighten their devotion to God — can enjoy a variety of options to eat during iftar, the evening meal to break fast.
“Ramadan is a really awesome scene here at Manakeesh because you get a feel for what it’s like in Middle Eastern countries,” says Chatila, who is Lebanese American. “We close during the day, observing the tradition, and we open up prior to iftar to start taking orders. You see people rushing in and preparing to eat. Then we start passing out dates to the whole crowd.”
In the lead-up to Ramadan this month, Chatila’s mother is back to decorating the cafe to remind herself and everyone else of their Lebanese culture, and the staff is preparing a special Ramadan menu. Manakeesh has several Ramadan specials, so people get to experience traditional foods from Lebanon and other countries during the holy month. Some dishes include sambousek, or meat pastries; kabsa, which is spicy rice with chicken; and mansef, a Jordanian dish with big chunks of lamb cooked in yogurt sauce with yellow rice.
“We’re a Lebanese restaurant, but we have a diverse team from all over. They bring their own culture here, and we let them be adventurous and try different things,” Chatila says. “One of our head chefs prepares a traditional Egyptian dish called koshary, which is made of rice and pasta — it works — and roasted red pepper tomato sauce on top. And every day of Ramadan we have traditional sweets like knafeh.”
Goubaa’s faith and his business go hand in hand. Throughout the year, his restaurant makes care packages and meals to give out to those who need them. During the worst of the pandemic last year, Don Panchito Halal Mexican Grill fed staff at more than 35 hospitals in just one month. Goubaa says the restaurant plans to continue that through this Ramadan, as helping others is obligatory for Muslims, especially during the holy month. He and his restaurant will sponsor masjids (mosques) from Friday to Sunday and provide them with free platters of quesadillas and tacos for iftar. And from Monday to Thursday, they will work with local supermarkets to give out care packages to refugees and the food insecure.
“Allah commanded us to purify our wealth, and the best way to do that is to give zakat,” Goubaa says, referring to the Islamic obligation to give a portion of your wealth to charity. “Zakat extinguishes bad deeds like water extinguishes fire. And during the month of Ramadan, our good deeds are multiplied. That’s something we grew up on; that’s something we firmly believe in.”
Ramadan is a special time inside the restaurant as well. On the second floor, there is a quiet area; it’s where Goubaa hosts tarawih — special nightly prayers during Ramadan — and where employees can go to take a break, read the Quran, or pray. The Quran plays out loud in the back of the kitchen, and sometimes it can be heard in front as well. When non-Muslims come in and ask about it, Goubaa explains the concept of Ramadan and halal and what the month of forgiveness means. There are even special packets placed in front to educate people. Plus, the restaurant gives out free desserts.
Following the Islamic guidelines, like substituting pork for steak, as the restaurant does in its barbacoa recipe, is very important for 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 have faith in themselves and the ability for them to have the strength to say, ‘Wow, this is a Muslim-run business,’ because we don’t have that many,” he says. “I want them to see that there are other Muslims [who] are successful and pushing through.”
The same goes for Chatila and his restaurant, just a few miles away. Feeding others was always 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 a lot of lessons. As Muslims, you feel blessings during this month,” Chatila says. “A lot of childhood memories surround Ramadan: staying up late at night, eating a lot of food, spending time with family, the nice smells of the kitchen … and seeing people eating together and happy.”