Islamic Poultry for Latino Tables (Yes, They Have Chilies, Too)
“We were taught what we needed to sell by the customers,” said Ahmed Elrabat, whose father helped found the shop in the 1980s.
By ANA FACIO-KRAJCER
Sebastian Flores walked out of Al Salam Pollería with a free bag of white-feathered chicken heads.
Mr. Flores, 26, an immigrant and a regular customer of Al Salam, a Muslim, family-owned halal poultry shop, was driving home when he developed a craving for the treat. He was planning on sprinkling the chicken heads with poultry seasoning and roasting them in the oven, the way they did back home in Puebla, Mexico.
Customers like Mr. Flores are the lifeblood of Al Salam Pollería, a thriving shop that opened 28 years ago “by accident,” according to its founders. Abdul Elhawary and his brother-in-law, Safwat Elrabat, who died 12 years ago, opened the shop in East Los Angeles because the zoning there allowed the sale and on-site slaughter of live poultry, in accordance with their religion’s dietary requirements.
Chicken feet at Al Salam Pollería, a Muslim, family-owned business that caters to Latino customers.
There were few halal butchers in Los Angeles in the 1980s, Mr. Elhawary, 60, said, so the family expected large numbers of Muslims from across the city to make the trek to buy halal poultry.
That never happened. Much to their surprise, though, Latino immigrant customers did show up, and in large numbers.
“It was a very happy coincidence and very happy surprise,” said Mr. Elrabat’s daughter, Iman Elrabat-Gabr, 37, “that Latinos were really interested in fresh chicken.”
Animals must be killed according to Islamic law for their meat to be halal, a practice followed at the store only when a customer requests halal meat.
“Around 1989, when we found out that 90 percent of the customers are Latino and we only had 10 percent that are non-Latino, we changed the name in the business cards to Al Salam Pollería,” Mr. Elhawary said. Originally, it had been Al Salam Farms; “salaam” means peace in Arabic and “pollería” is poultry shop in Spanish.
Ms. Elrabat-Gabr recalls that in the beginning, chicken feet would end up in the trash. Muslims did not eat them. But her family soon learned that in Latino culture, the feet were used for chicken soup and were considered a treat for children. The chicken heads, on the other hand, are an uncommon request and are given away free to customers, she said.
Abdul Elhawary, the owner of Al Salam Pollería.
“In Southern California, we believe we were the first Muslim-owned poultry store that figured out that Latinos are just as much interested in live chickens — fresh chickens — as we are,” said Ms. Elrabat-Gabr, who helps out at the East Los Angeles store. Her family, she said, takes pride in having discovered a niche market in Latino communities.
The East Los Angeles shop has been so successful over the last 20 years that members of the Elrabat and Elhawary families have opened three other butcher shops in Latino enclaves. Mr. Elhawary runs a shop of his own (L. A. Fresh Poultry Pollería) west of downtown Los Angeles. Ahmed Elrabat, 35, his nephew, owns a storefront (Pollería el Matador) in Southeast Los Angeles, where a large Mexican flag hangs from a pole outside.
Except for a few Koran verses on a wall and a small porcelain figure of the Kaaba shrine in Mecca atop a refrigerator, Al Salam Pollería, identified easily by the rooster on its roof, resembles a business that caters to the Latino palate. The products for sale include dry pepitas and chilies for mole poblano; various herbs like epazote, essential to some Mexican dishes; and Mexican candy like mazapan.
“We were taught what we needed to sell by the customers,” said Mr. Elrabat.
Ms. Elrabat-Gabr said her father had often spent entire days speaking only Spanish at the poultry shop and “before he died he was more fluent in Spanish than English.”
Mr. Elhawary, who was a high school French teacher in Egypt before emigrating to the United States in 1980, said learning Spanish had not been difficult for him.
“French helped me digest the Spanish language. Spanish is a very beautiful language. It’s musical,” said Mr. Elhawary. “Once you know the language, it breaks the barrier between you and the person.”
A private joke between the family and their shoppers.
Hussam Ayloush, executive director of the Los Angeles chapter of the Council on American-Islamic Relations, said Latinos and Muslims had many things in common.
“And sometimes even the food tastes similar because of the many years of interaction between the Muslim Arabs from Africa and Spaniards,” said Mr. Ayloush, whose Mexican-American wife converted to Islam. “You’re talking about 700 years of Muslims living in Spain. And those same Spaniards are the ones that came to Latin and South America and brought with them much of that Arab culture.”
Adrian Pantoja, a professor of politics and Chicano studies at Pitzer College in Claremont, Calif., said the family showcased the ways some of the city’s ethnic entrepreneurs had learned to adapt.
“For me, it’s one example of perhaps hundreds of thousands of little shops like these in Latino neighborhoods,” Mr. Pantoja said.
Mr. Flores, the customer with his bag of chicken heads, said he was a regular patron, and not just because of the quality of the food.
“Here they treat you well and they speak Spanish,” Mr. Flores said. “It’s good that they are willing to learn from another culture.”