While growing up in the South Bay, Hisham Abdelfattah became fascinated with Mexican food and culture. He isn’t Mexican — he was raised by a Filipino mother and Palestinian father — but in his teenage days working in restaurants as a prep cook, Mexican food was his favorite to cook and play with. Then, in 2014, he started exploring the Islam faith, and he realized it meant a change in the food he could eat, as he began to follow Islamic dietary laws. “I couldn’t go anywhere for great Mexican food anymore, especially in San Jose — and that was really disheartening,” Abdelfattah says.
For years after that realization, Abdelfattah worked on the concept that would eventually turn into his food truck El Halal Amigos and the San Jose brick and mortar that eventually followed this February. Halal, which is Arabic for “permissible,” governs how animals are slaughtered following guidance from the Qur’an, and requires animals be killed without unnecessary suffering by a practicing Muslim after the recitation of a prayer, with all blood drained from the animal before processing. Given the strict guidelines for eating halal, Abdelfattah “realized that there’s a niche here” among practicing Muslims craving Mexican food, including himself, and he sought to fill that demand. “I started talking to other Muslims in the mosques, and they said, ‘Yeah, we really just want a place where we can go get a crunchy taco or burrito,’” Abdelfattah says. “We want our own style of Taco Bell or something, right?”
Intent on opening his restaurant, Abdelfattah joined local chain Tacolicious in Santana Row as a managing partner, working there for a year and a half before COVID struck. A number of his friends, fellow cooks and chefs, were on board with the idea of creating a halal-Mexican food restaurant before COVID-19, and when the pandemic took over and they were all out of a job, so Abdelfattah sped up the timeline of opening the restaurant and pushed himself to open the food truck in spring 2020.
As the pandemic forced restaurants to turn to takeout and delivery that spring, Abdelfattah was hard at work developing recipes and finding a truck to start the business. By August, he’d sunk all his money into the truck and El Halal Amigos was ready to launch. He applied for business permits in Santa Clara County, the East Bay, and Alameda County, and Newark happened to be the first city to approve them. “We were going with the grace of God,” Abdelfattah says. “It just so happens Newark and Fremont is heavily populated with Muslims, and we like to say that God was guiding us in the right direction.”
The truck was a hit, selling out every night and debuting at a time when most diners were “afraid to go eat inside,” he says. El Halal Amigos “bridged the gap” for Muslim eaters who wanted Mexican food, but Abdelfattah also credits social media with saving his food truck. Engaging with local Facebook groups like the 20,000-plus member group, Bay Area Halal Foodies, Abdelfattah began posting photos of the food in the leadup to the opening, eventually hopping in front of the camera in TikTok videos to hype up his food. Food TikTok latched on to the videos — which showed tantalizing images of cheese melting over El Halal Amigos’ tacos, burritos and Nar-chos (a version of nachos that includes a choice of fries or chips and style of meat, topped with queso, pico de gallo, beans, crema and “nar sauce”), as well as specials such as elote, tortas, and quesabirria tacos — El Halal Amigo’s account currently stands at over 41,000 followers.
Abdelfattah, however, always had plans to open a full-fledged restaurant. “I always thought I wanted a food truck until I actually got on one,” he says. “It’s a really, really tough business.”
El Halal Amigos eventually took over the former Main Street Burgers space on Lincoln Avenue in San Jose and opened in February 2022, converting the truck for catering private events. The menu is filled with meat choices such as brisket barbacoa, pollo al pastor, carne asada, and a vegan potato and cauliflower option, filling street tacos, nachos, enchiladas, burritos, and burrito bowls. They’ve kept the quesabirria tacos on as a weekly Sunday special, as well, and everything is prepped to halal standards. Abdelfattah is heavily involved in the Muslim community and has partnered with charities, such as Islamic Relief USA, and included his food truck in events such as Halal Restaurant Week.
In April, El Halal Amigos is participating in HalalFest 2022’s Ramadan schedule, with plans to stay open until midnight on Fridays and Saturdays for those breaking fast at night, and on April 9 the restaurant will stay open until 3 a.m. “It’s almost like a festivity kind of thing, of eating all night and rejoicing together in groups, families coming together at restaurants,” Abdelfattah says.
Abdelfattah jokes that his mother wishes he did Filipino-halal food first, but says he just loves Mexican food so much, and he hopes to expand the restaurant into a chain. He didn’t want to attempt any fusion of Mexican food and instead opted to not tamper with the authenticity and culture of Mexico. “We wanted a Mexican, authentic restaurant that also made really great food to compete with other great Mexican restaurants; but we wanted something for everyone,” Abdelfattah says. “We wanted every single person to be able to walk into our restaurant and be like, ‘I can eat this.’”
El Halal Amigos (1100 Lincoln Avenue, Suite 160, San Jose) is open 11:30 a.m.-9 p.m. Sundays through Thursdays, 11:30 a.m.-10 p.m. Fridays through Saturdays.