Malak Mazeh had spent enough time managing chain restaurants. Born in East Los Angeles, he wanted a restaurant that reflected his roots and his Muslim faith, but also a new city that had slowly won him over.
After his older brother married a Buffalonian, Mazeh spent three years in Buffalo before moving back to Los Angeles in 2015. Knowing he'd have the financial support of Haider Khadim, a local oncologist-hematologist who had become a close friend, Mazeh returned to Buffalo with his younger brother, Nour, to open Hali Boyz Mexican-American Grille in Black Rock, last May.
"Buffalo takes time to grow on you; we're not originally from here and the weather isn't appealing at all times," Mazeh reflected. "But we didn't see competition for real Mexican food. We saw a lot of people trying to do it, but we didn't see anybody putting heart into their stuff, like following scratch-kitchen recipes ... Anybody can make a fish taco or a fusion burrito."
Striking graffiti adorns the walls of the small, takeout-focused joint, which offers just two tables and a handful of seats along the side walls. A mural on the west wall represents Los Angeles, while the east depicts Buffalo, their adopted city.
The unified message is the coast-to-coast story of the Mazehs' lives. Done entirely by spray can, the graffiti - intended to imitate food truck designs common in east LA - is the work of local muralist Timothy Meyers.
The name "Hali" comes from a combination of halal, cuts of meat regulated by Muslim law in regard to their preparation, and Cali, the Mazehs' birthplace. There's no pork on the menu, and the restaurant is closed Fridays, the traditional Muslim day of prayer.
Given the lack of nearby halal producers, the Mazehs order their meat from outside of Buffalo, and that dedication is reflected, to some degree, in the prices and quantities.
Hali Boyz produces Los Angeles-style Mexican street food in its tacos ($2.50-$3.25), burritos ($7.99-$8.99), quesadillas ($6.99-$7.99), tortas (Mexican sandwiches, $6.99-$7.50), subs ($5.99-$9.99) and sopes (a fried corn tortilla bowl filled with meat and vegetables, $3.75-$4.25), which are offered in varieties such as steak, pulled beef, chicken, shrimp, vegetal and chile deshebrada, a flavorful shredded concoction of meat, vegetables and chiles.
In Los Angeles, street tacos are served with a mixture of onion and cilantro - not one or the other - and rarely are sour cream or flour tortillas offered. While these standards are reflected in the Amherst Street menu, there's flexibility in the salsas, available in small containers near the counter in orange, red and green varieties, two of which are made by Mazeh's mother.
While the gregarious Mazeh brothers are happy to offer suggestions, Malak's preference is to take an undressed taco and apply a line of the red chile salsa - "if my mouth is not on fire, I'm not eating it," he said - and cover it with a more substantial dose of the fresh green or orange chile salsa. That way, he gets plenty of heat while avoiding the burning, numbing sensation the eater would get from lip-to-red-salsa contact.
A generous helping of the zesty-with-a-kick orange salsa enlivened both the carne asada taco and the chicken hoagie, and Mazeh wasn't lying when he said to be delicate with the red chile.
Though Hali Boyz is strict in its take on tacos, the rest of the menu delves into Buffalo favorites. Advised to serve wings crispy and well-sauced, the restaurant delivers an unexpectedly tasty version ($8 for eight wings), available also in flavors such as lemon pepper gold, Parmesan and sweet chili.
The Gorilla Fries ($5.99) are freshly cut and then smothered in cheese, ranch dressing and barbecue sauce before being topped with a few strips of bacon. While a delicious choice for a chilly day, this take on fries doesn't seem very Mexican, right? The opportunity to pair Mexican street food with these unrelated comfort options, however, was a goal of Mazeh's.
"Carne asada burrito and Buffalo fries, beef sopes and chili cheese fries - those worlds never (usually) mix," Mazeh said. "[Here] you can have two great things next to each other that could individually be their own meal. That's the whole thing Hali Boyz wanted to do."
Eventually, the Hali Boyz owners want to open locations on Elmwood, Hertel and in Orchard Park, before expanding to New York City and back to California. While those goals are lofty and perhaps distant, the Mazehs' expression of their life's story has them on the right track.
388 Amherst St. (783-9940).
Hours: 11 a.m. to 9 p.m. every day except for Friday.
Wheel-chair accessible: One small step by entrance.
Parking: Free in Polish Cadets lot at corner of Grant and Amherst streets. Entrance to that lot is on Grant Street side. There's street parking along Amherst, too.