FOOD: A Little of Everything at Halalco Supermarket

Falls Church Times Staff

January 22, 2010

If you are a City of Falls Church resident there’s a good chance you’ve seen the black and white BUFFET yard signs for Halalco Restaurant scattered throughout town.  They are simply unavoidable.

I first saw one on Lee Highway a few months back, and I got a chance to look at it long and hard because I was sitting at a red light.  I had never heard of Halalco, so I was intrigued on some level.  But buffets are rarely rewarding and frequently horrid to the point where you regret eating at them, so I filed the name in the back of my mind as a possible destination for some food column far, far away.

Far, far away turned out to be last week.  After some internet sleuthing I learned that Halalco Restaurant was actually inside of Halalco Supermarket, a fully stocked grocer with loads of imported goods, a butcher, produce, and tons of Islamic items, ranging from clothes to books to DVDs.  The buffet was but a small part of a huge operation.  What was once an afterthought for a story jumped to the top of my list (yes, I have a list).

The meat men at work at Halalco.

The meat men at work at Halalco.

My anticipation only grew as I pulled into the strip mall housing Halalco.  The place is absolutely massive.  I went through the doors and didn’t walk out for another hour, as I was intent on checking out every nook and cranny of the chaotically organized store.

I began in the produce department.  Unfortunately there wasn’t much to like there.  A dozen or so bunches of cilantro covered with ice were on life support, as bruised and battered as I’ve ever seen the pungent herb.  Japanese eggplants—wrinkly, pliable, and soft—weren’t much better off.  Clearly there wasn’t much turnover in the fruit and veggies department.  I moved on.

The bread aisle was much more promising, jam-packed with lavash bread (both white and whole wheat) from Falls Church’s Mama Lavash Bakery, several types of soft and chewy Afghan bread, and more than a few bags of pita.   I immediately recognized the red-lettered “World Famous” variety of Afghan bread made in Lorton, Virginia, which I’ve bought elsewhere and is a particular favorite of mine.  The dough is made with milk and is especially tender as a result.  It’s about as good as bread out of a package can get.

The rest of the aisles were a mish-mash of imported goods from all over the Middle East, India, and the Eastern Mediterranean.  It was as if a Middle Eastern grocer and an Indian grocer met up and decided to join forces.  One aisle was full of tahini and pomegranate molasses, the next overflowing with whole spices and Indian pre-packaged meals.  And there were pickles, dozens and dozens of cans and jars of pickles.  Pickled beets, pickled okra, pickled peppers, pickled eggplant, pickled cucumbers—everything was pickled.

I also stumbled upon some excellent cooking implements, including real-deal kabob swords for grilling, ma’moul cookie molds, and mortar and pestles.  And there was an entire section devoted to rice, most of which came in mulch-sized bags.

You could spend an afternoon weighing your options in the rice aisle at Halalco.

You could spend an afternoon weighing your options in the rice aisle at Halalco.

Most of the aisles I walked down were deserted, though.  Everyone who walked in the store went straight to the butcher in the back.  Clearly, the vast selection of halal meats is the draw for most customers.  In addition to the typical lamb and chicken offerings, there were halal hot dogs, sausages, and even jerky, none of which I’d ever seen before.

In general terms, halal refers to anything that is permitted under Islamic law, whether it be the clothes you wear, the things you say, or the food you eat.  In the United States the term usually shows up only in the context of food.  In order to be considered halal, an animal must be slaughtered at the neck (to drain the blood away) and the name of Allah must be spoken as it is killed.  The halal butcher industry has blossomed in these parts due to the area’s large Muslim population, which I am thankful for because halal meat is usually fresh and affordable.

I hovered around the butcher for a few minutes, transfixed by the huge saw ten feet in front of me grinding through lamb bones.  It was thrilling to have such a wide-open view of the men handling the meat—an opportunity you never get at places like Giant or Safeway.

I forged on to the non-food area of the store, mostly because I saw a sign for cookbooks.  Mere footsteps away from the lamb carcasses I found the mother lode-unquestionably the best selection of cookbooks for sale in the City of Falls Church.  An entire shelf spilled over with some of the best-known titles for Indian and Middle Eastern cooking, including works from legends like Claudia Roden, Paula Wolfert, and Madhur Jaffrey.  Even better than the well-known books were the dozens of funky little paperbacks I flipped through that are definitely not available at Barnes & Noble or Borders.

I got so caught up in the cookbooks that I ran out of time to eat at the buffet, which looked a little dreary anyways.  Nevertheless, I felt compelled to give it a try and went back this week.  Nothing was horrible but I would never go out of my way to eat there.  Most of the food was either Indian or Pakistani in nature, the bulk of it vegetable curries.  There were also some meat dishes, all with similar home-style, tomato-based curry preparations.

The only way I’d eat there again would be if I was already shopping and had a hankering for spicy, oily Indian food.  In that case I’d load up on the squash curry, chickpeas, and chicken karahi, which were the best of what I sampled.  And if you do brave the buffet be sure to wait for the piping hot disc of naan that comes with the meal—every dish tastes better sopped up with the Indian flatbread.  There are order-off-the-menu options as well, but frankly it doesn’t seem like anybody is there to eat at the restaurant, so I’d steer clear.

Taken as a whole package, Halalco Supermarket is undoubtedly a worthy place to visit for adventurous food shoppers.  Once you sift through the sub-par produce and haphazardly organized shelves (good luck finding the price on some of the products), you’ll find a gem of a grocer the City is lucky to have.

Halalco Supermarket- 155 Hillwood Avenue, Falls Church, VA, 22046.  (703) 532-3202.  For more information on the halal meat industry in the Washington D.C. area, click here for a great article from the Washington Post.

January 22, 2010 


2 Responses to “FOOD: A Little of Everything at Halalco Supermarket”

  1. E. M. Toft, City of Falls Church on January 21st, 2010 11:58 pm

    Delighted Halalco moved up your list, Jimmy, as it has been on my “markets to visit” list as well. You just saved me a lot of time, as I know I can race right over to the meats, breads, cooking implements and cookbooks! Thanks again for another solid, comprehensive review!

  2. Ahmed Hussain, Falls Church on January 22nd, 2010 7:02 am

    Great article Jimmy, as usual. Our family spends a lot of time (and money!) at Halalco because of the dedication of the owner, Mohamed Cheda, to the true Halal, hand-slaughtered according to Islamic laws. He had a bit of a problem some years ago when he carried some products marked Halal which in fact were slaughtered by machine by a company called Midamar. Now however, everything is Halal and since Halalco switched to the hand-slaughter, his business has really grown.

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