With lungs full of tear gas and ears ringing from flashbangs, where on earth do you grab a bite to eat after a protest?
Uptown went from being a ghost town to a war zone so quickly, it was hard to orient yourself. I live in Uptown, and had spent the previous 60 days sitting on my balcony listening to nothing. The sounds of club-ready women laughing and tricked out cars blasting Da Baby had been replaced by silence, save for the occasional leash rattle of a late evening dog walk.
This was Charlotte gripped by the COVID-19 pandemic and a statewide Stay At Home order.
Ironically, it was perhaps this lack of social distraction that most contributed to the sudden shift from distance to dissent.
We all sat at home on our laptops and watched Ahmaud Arbery shot while taking a jog. Then, we watched a woman in Central Park say "I'm calling the police and telling them an African American man is threatening me" after a dispute over a leash law. Finally, we watched George Floyd say "I can't breathe" and call out for his mother as a Minneapolis officer kneeled on his neck for nine minutes.
The silence was replaced by sounds of helicopters, police sirens, and the chants of protesters calling for racial justice.
My first evening protest was on a Saturday night, a charged affair that saw broken windows at King's Kitchen, Discovery Place, Woodie's, and Coco and the Director among others.
There's a debate to be had, and it was certainly had, about the merits of this kind of violence, even in the face of racially motivated murder by police officers.
Then, three nights later, CMPD lured peaceful protesters into a kettling trap, tear gassing the protesters from both sides, sending them into a panic with flashbangs, and shooting them from above with pepperballs. I was there. The burning in my eyes and lungs lasted a few hours, but the memories and trauma have yet to demonstrate how long they plan to last.
The event was chronicled by Queen City Nerve as part of its thorough and stunning coverage of the protests, undoubtedly the best journalistic work in Charlotte in years.
Businesses boarded up, sandwiched between a global pandemic that sent their customers home and a global uprising that put too many of them on the street.
But left in this merchandise of smashed glass and pepperball splatter was a lone food cart which never left the corner of Trade and Tryon, even with police to their back and protesters to their front.
Halal Food Cart represents the indomitable spirit of the Charlotte dining scene. In serving gyros and falafel to both police officers and protesters, there is some metaphor bubbling to the surface about how the need for food demonstrates our shared humanity.
Underneath the social structures that drive police officers to murder or protesters to smash windows, we are all just people with base needs. Those needs are justice. Those needs are respect. Those needs are safety, comfort, and freedom.
But toss away the metaphor and what you get is courage. When officers claim they're so terrified of plastic water bottles that they must tear gas crowds of people, and protesters are so startled by flashbangs that medics are needed to tend to those nearly trampled, the quiet fearlessness of this little food cart to continue feeding all who approached them is staggering.
The food is phenomenal, but we all already knew that. Seasoned to generational perfection, texturally stunning, warmth with savory and sweetness, Halal does it all whether it's for overpaid banker bros on lunch break in the middle of the week, or sweat-drenched protesters who've just ducked the riot squad.
It tastes like a stalwart spirit. It tastes like culture. It tastes like revolution. Halal Food Cart, in this moment in our city's history, is absolutely perfect.
On June 5th, three days after the tear gas attack, all the ATMs in Uptown were out of service. Since Halal Food Cart is cash-only, I had to order from Uber Eats and instruct the driver to hand the food to me right next to the cart.
Police offers were parked at the corner of Trade and Tryon as the protests continued for another night.
I spoke to the manager briefly while I waited on my Uber driver to arrive. A language barrier separated us, and he had a line of a few people.
"No one has touched us," he told me. He pointed down Trade. "Every window down there was smashed. But no one touched us."
I asked him and his cook and if they'd ever been scared. "It's not bad like Los Angeles or Chicago," he told me.
So many Charlotte detractors would compare us unfavorably to those cities, I thought. These are the types who complain about the seltzeries and the LoSos and the $150 immersive dining pop-ups. Those are the voices in the Twittersphere who believe somehow our culture is being destroyed every time some Southend resident orders a saison at a new gastropub.
But the folks serving at Halal Food Cart have seen our ugliest side and our most beautiful side. Maybe we do have something on those cities after all, something deep and new and innocent. Or maybe the rabble rousers in that Saturday's protests just didn't get a chance to think about smashing up Halal Food Cart. What is it that makes this one spot an oasis of peace in a rising sea of tension?
"It's just so weird," Evan Kent of Bring Back the Buzz later told me. We were discussing a post-protest Halal Food Cart trip. "I first went there as a kid with my father who worked downtown, then later in my life it was exhausted after a night of partying, and now I’m eating it exhausted after marching for miles and not eating for hours."
Weird is a certainly a word for it. This ubiquitous little food cart has found its place in so many moments of our lives. What is its place in this one?
I asked Justin LaFrancois from Queen City Nerve, who's been on the ground for the protests every night, what'd observed of Halal.
"I remember it was the night that guy fell 30' down the man hole," he texted me. "There were a group of about seven people in line as riot police were tossing flashbang grenades and shooting pepperballs at the crowd forming around the Halal Food Cart. The line remained, unwaveringly, as they knew that Halal was worth the bombardment."
When I bite into a lamb gyro with extra white sauce and veggie falafel over rice, I think I understand why no one smashed up Halal, why it's perfect after drunken party nights and intense protests, why flashbangs and pepperballs couldn't get people out of the line.
It's just so fucking good.
The lamb gyro clocks in at just $6, and I'll make the claim right now that this is among the best dishes under $10 in Charlotte.
The pita is warm and soft. It pulls apart with ease despite its relative thickness. The white sauce has a sweet undertone to it that's addictive, the kind of sauce you want to have your first taste of over and over again. You can note the well-timed cooking of the lamb by its texture, mostly soft but with definite structure. This shows a level of master timing on a griddle in a cart that some chefs can't pull off with an entire kitchen.
But it's those classic Mediterranean spices that do you in.
I detected subtle use of chili powder and cumin, as well as thyme and oregano that added an aroma to every bite, creating a multi-sensory experience. There's a lot going on in this gyro at once, but it's a jam session that forms a concerto.
The crunchy veggies in the falafel defy logic. I know there's no way they're fresh, but damned if they don't taste it. If Halal Food Cart is pulling off fresh veggies in that space, all other Charlotte chefs are out of excuses. The falafel is crunchy and warm. Cumin and coriander counter-balance each other like two figure skaters.
I ate my food on a bench and listened to a helicopter circle over head.
In the last 90 days, I watched my neighborhood, Uptown, dry out like a dish towel. Then, I watched it explode like a powder keg. I've sat alone in my studio apartment for days on end, and I've chanted "Hands Up, Don't Shoot" as I was marched into a war-crime like trap by my city's police officers.
But sitting on that bench dripping white sauce all over my fingers, a thought occurred to me. This is the first time I've felt normal in months.
Black lives matter. I don't think we'll ever stop saying it. Shout out to the ones like Halal, who will stand with us in courage and do what they can to help. For these dudes, it's serving hungry freedom fighters some of the best food our city has.