Halal shops lead Metro Detroit's gourmet burger trend with fresh, cleaner fare

Walk into Brome Burgers & Shakes on the west side of Dearborn, and you just might feel like you’ve entered NYC’s wildly popular Shake Shack. Right on down to the bright green color scheme, dining tables made from reclaimed wood, natural lighting, and the stars of the menu, gourmet burgers and hand-spun shakes, it’s clear the eatery’s founders are vying for the patronage of lovers of the famous Manhattan chain.

But unlike the Shack, Brome is taking its beef to another level in quality. Not only do the patties here come from 100 percent organic and grass-fed beef, but they're also part of a growing number of burger joints that are entering the $20 billion halal industry.

For the uninitiated, halal refers to the slaughter and preparation of meat as prescribed by Islamic Law. Muslim business owners adhere to these standards from restaurants to grocery stores all over the world. Traditionally only found in ethnic enclaves, Middle Eastern restaurants or food carts, halal is booming – despite an anti-Muslim backlash that has been coming out of our current administration, including a so-called (and shot down) travel ban against several Muslim-majority countries.

Some of it has to do with changing demographics and demand among Muslim American consumers for more variety in the foods they eat. But there’s also a growing interest among those mindful of sourcing their meat from sustainable, humane methods.

Zane Makky. Photo by Serena Maria Daniels.

And restaurateurs are eager to join in the frenzy, finding ever-more-creative means of outdoing one another. Brome features a unique burger special each month, like April’s “All-American” – topped with a thick, smoky cut of all-beef bacon and a crunchy onion ring. Others, like Famous Hamburger, tout their longevity and full-service dining approach. And still, others are pushing the boundaries of what should go in a burger, like the soon-to-open Royale with Cheese in Midtown – which infuses potato chips and nacho cheese into its menu.

“It’s something that plays a perfect part in the business because all in all, it’s a more natural product,” says Zane Makky, the executive chef at Brome.

Come this summer, Brome will be competing directly with the likes of Shake Shack, Five Guys, Wahlburgers and other downtown burger eateries. Makky tells us the restaurant should come to the financial district by the end of the season.

Early Adopter

The concept of the halal-friendly burger is nothing new, though it certainly has grown in recent years, says Mohammed Hider, owner and general manager of the Famous Hamburger chain – one of the earliest area burger joints to focus on halal meat.

The restaurant got its start in 1968 when his grandfather Hussein opened Little White Castle, a play off the popular American slider spot, in a university district in Beirut, Lebanon. His burgers were so well known – Hider says his grandfather was the first to place a fried egg on a patty in Lebanon – that people would approach him on the streets.

“So he changed his name to Famous because he was that famous,” says the younger Hider, who is the third generation to run the Famous chain.

A Famous Hamburger. Photo by Maria Serena Daniels.

Lebanon’s civil unrest in the 1970s and 80s resulted in diaspora for the Hider family; they relocated to Michigan in the 1980s, and with them, so did Famous Hamburger. The first opened in 1996 with a 600-square-foot space in Dearborn. Over the years, as word got out about the place, so did their popularity and several expansions.

“Back then, it was so difficult to find a great halal burger,” says Hider. “You would have restaurants that offered burgers, but they were nothing special. We found all the vendors who would provide us with the right cuts of beef, the right buns to make a real handcrafted burger.”

Famous now has three sit-down, full-service franchise locations; two in Dearborn and one in Canton. Hider tells us more are on the way within the next year.

Over the past few years, Hider says he’s noticed an explosion of new halal burger spots open throughout the region, a sign that Muslims and non-Muslims alike are hungry for a  more humanely produced cut of beef.

“The cool thing about halal beef is it doesn’t just market to Muslims, it can be marketed to everybody if you sell it right,” he says. “It’s cleaner than non-halal, and a lot of people come to us because of that cleanliness factor.”

A different approach

Over in the shadow of Wayne State’s clock tower sits the newest addition to the halal burger scene, Royale with Cheese – which plays homage to that iconic scene in Pulp Fiction when John Travolta’s character is explaining to Samuel L. Jackson's about the subtle differences between the United States and Canada.

“You know what they call a Quarter Pounder with cheese in France?... They call it Royale with Cheese.”

A wall-length mural of that landmark Tarantino scene adorns the dining room of the Midtown spot, which is set to open this month. But that’s where the movie references end.

Royal with Cheese. Photo by Serena Maria Daniels.

Also of Lebanese heritage, chef-owner Hass Bazzy says his global upbringing – he was raised in Sierra Leone until his teens when he migrated to southeast Michigan – influences his menu.

“Everywhere you go, you pick up on a little something different,” says Bazzy.

On the menu, you’ll find a gourmet stoner’s dream: fried ravioli bites dredged in a smashed Doritos breading and stuffed with nacho cheese, spiral-cut fries with a flavor bomb of BBQ seasoning, and of course wild burger combinations like the “Kruncher,” a fiery monstrosity loaded with jalapeno-flavored potato chips, roasted green chili queso, southwest corn relish and Cajun aioli.

Bazzy, 33, also makes sure to infuse his Middle Eastern roots into the mix, with wraps, an “Alexandra” Mediterranean-style burger that comes with a falafel patty, and his spin on fatoush salad, made with kale.

Royale with Cheese is a lifelong journey for Bazzy and business partner and childhood friend Moe Ettaher, a pharmacist. Before the new restaurant, Bazzy worked for a short time as a mortgage banker at Quicken Loans, as a chef at Comerica Park and the Grosse Ile Golf and Country Club.

Opening near Wayne State and the Detroit Medical Center, both of which have large numbers of Muslims studying and working on each campus, makes sense for Bazzy, who sees an opportunity to offer an alternative to the many pita places and other Middle Eastern-style eateries that are more often associated with halal.

“Now here, we have a whole array of selections for the kids,” he says.

When Brome Burgers & Shakes opened its doors in 2015, the idea for founder Sam Abbas was to introduce residents of his hometown of Dearborn to a burger approach more akin with the health food and sustainability-crazed West Coast, where he had spent a stint.

It’s that California aesthetic that is precisely what you find there. Two living walls with growing ivy help cancel out the sound of the dining crowds. An abundance of natural light floods in from large windows and a spacious outdoor patio invites families to enjoy their meals outdoors when weather permits.

It’s the type of vibe that seems poised for expansion.

Come this summer, Brome will be competing with the likes of Shake Shack, Five Guys, Wahlburgers and other downtown burger eateries. Makky tells us the restaurant should come to the financial district by the end of the season.