I found Al Helal Meat & Fish Market thanks to Mayor Domenick Stampone of neighboring Haledon Borough, who Tweeted enthusiastically about this Middle Eastern spot and invited me on a recent ethnic food tour of Paterson.
Like many of New Jersey’s best ethnic food spots, at first glance, Al Helal appears to be just a market. Groceries and housewares are up front. The meat counter in the back is well stocked with fresh beef, lamb and goat. (The market follows Islamic dietary rules, halal, so no pork.) Unlike your local Pathmark, the butchers here proudly display every cut, including tongue, liver, kidney, tripe, tails and feet. The fish counter along the left wall is just as impressive, with at least a dozen varieties of fresh whole fish on ice. I saw red snapper, porgies, sardines, striped bass, branzino, perch and rainbow trout, among others.
What makes Al Helal unique, and worth a special trip, is that you can pick a whole fish, or a piece of meat, and they’ll prepare it for you on the spot – grilled, fried or broiled. Along one wall, to the right of the entrance, an impressive brick-framed grill smokes with hardwood charcoal. The guy at the fish counter gives you your selection in a bucket, and you walk it over to the grill man. I opted for a lamb chop and some homemade lamb sausage from the meat counter. At the grill, I asked for my lamb chop spicy. The grill man worked his magic with a spice rub and direct flame. Fast food as it should be.
A few minutes later, my lamb chop was perfectly grilled, nicely spiced, and served atop a heaping plats of rice and grilled vegetables. The sausages have a nice flavor and are delicious scooped up in a fresh pita. Fortunately, I had opened a bottle of ayran, a Turkish yogurt drink (like Persian doogh), which I needed almost immediately to counter the super spicy grilled jalapenos. Make sure you sample a few of the excellent salads and sides, like creamy hummus, flavorful red pepper spread, or a very nice Turkish salad. My entire lunch, including the drink, cost $15.
Al Helal Meat & Fish Market sits on the corner of East Railway and Crooks Avenues in Paterson, next to the railroad tracks and the bustling Farmers Market, which is most crowded on Saturdays.