It is 10:31 p.m. In your Huntsman GSR, your hunched back groans as you scourge countless economics flashcards in anticipation of the upcoming midterm, and your fingers tremble from all the typing for the internship application due tomorrow night. The entropy of homework is terminally increasing, your caffeine levels are at an all–time high, and all you can think about is work, work, work, work, work.

Now, as you journey back from the frontlines of the Huntsman GSR back towards your dorm, Locust just looks like a giant, white blur. Then, your stomach begins to growl. But it's too late—Penn Dining is closed.

Why not go halal?

At the intersection of 33rd and Chestnut, across from Barnes and Noble and just to the side of Drexel’s Papadakis Integrated Sciences Building, there is a yellow truck—part of the Friendly Tasty Dishes food cart chain—ablaze with the kaleidoscopic LED flashes of red, green, pink, blue, and orange. Chicken over rice? Samosas? Falafel sandwiches? The possibilities of filling up that empty belly are endless!

“Halal food? It is one of the best foods in Philly!” exclaims Aitizaz Khan. Behind the counter, the cordial vendor mans his battle station amidst a myriad of sounds, from the sizzling of the grill to the buzzing of the electric generator.

And the best part? It doesn’t close until 3 a.m.

Halal food is obviously nothing new. The smell of savory spices and sizzled lamb permeates everywhere across campus, from The Quad to the David Rittenhouse Laboratory. For example, everyone knows how the legendary Rahim Khan, owner of University City Gyro, regularly promotes his catering services on his Instagram page, posing with Penn students, snowmen, and the DRL Nikola Tesla statue. 

However, what makes the midnight halal phenomenon different? On a chilly Wednesday evening, Aitizaz explains to me how his food truck stands out.

“So the thing is, at around 11 p.m., all the restaurants and all the different food trucks are already closed,” he says, before quickly excusing himself to take an order of chicken over rice with salad and extra white sauce. “Many students come after midnight,” he continues. “They're usually coming from the gym, football, or cricket. Some people come after partying.”

There is an entire world hidden away behind that high counter. After the customers leave, Aitizaz even gives me a quick tour of the inside of the food truck. It is quite warm, and he shows me his setup: the vegetable cutting board, the gurgling deep fryer, the bountiful utensil boxes, and the steaming rice pot. Tangled phone chargers, mini–tablets for DoorDash or GrubHub orders, and a small stool further furnishes the interior. Pointing at the now empty grill, he says, “I’m gonna clean that up because I finished with the chicken, and now I need to prepare burgers and cheesesteaks.”

This specific food truck has sat here for four years. However, it certainly was not the first addition to the Friendly Tasty Dishes family, nor would it be the last. Friendly Tasty Dishes has branches in Temple and Drexel, and the chain has plans of starting a new cart around Penn. There is a whole community behind the scenes. As Napoleon’s old saying goes, an army marches on its stomach. In that case, Aitzaz and his comrades make up an entire motorized division of kitchen warriors, feeding hordes of students and keeping hunger at bay.

But what makes this specific food truck unique? Victor Wang (C ‘27), who came to Friendly Tasty Dishes to grab a quick dinner with his two friends, talks about how this specific midnight halal truck embodies something different for students.

“I think the price is pretty good," he says, holding a white plastic Halal bag. “In general, anything past midnight, your options are very limited. There's only Wawa and the food truck. Nothing else. And [Halal] tastes really, really good.”

“I’m probably here like twice a week,” he adds. “Usually I come here after studying, and that's like 2 a.m. and I'm starving—and then halal!”

Victor is certainly not the only one to think this way. Due to the close proximity of the food truck to first–year dorms, notably the Lauder, KCECH, and Hill College Houses, freshmen frequently flock to this food truck. However, upperclassmen excursions to this truck are not uncommon either.

Going to midnight halal is also an escape. At the end of the day, everyone is longing for a transcendent, flicker of comfort, away from the stress of our day–to–day lives. And to many, simply standing there and asking, “Hey, can I have a lamb–falafel combo with white sauce?” is a reassuring act that pulls us out of our immediate anxieties, whether it be homework, tests, or applications. Personally, greeting the vendors is one of the highlights; lighthearted jokes are cracked, and gratitude is exchanged. I even taught one of the vendors how to say “Hello” in Mandarin.

It's ecstatic to absorb the familiar presence of the vendor as he takes on an order. He engages in his intricate art of triggering tastebuds, and during that short wait, one could only imagine the mysterious gustatory secrets he holds behind that counter. When the food is finally served, the savory deliciousness contained within that cozy blend of meat, chickpeas, sauce, and salad invigorates the stomach and mind after a long day. For a moment, nothing else mattered except halal. Even in the harshest of deserts, there will always be an oasis to fall back to.

“Here man, I made a samosa for you,” Aitizaz said, as our interview began to draw to a close. I gave him my thanks before turning back to look at the truck for one last time.

Even after I leave, the LED lights of Friendly Tasty Dishes gleams into that deep, cackling night, and it is difficult to put a finger on this feeling of timelessness. Its generator will hum, hum, and hum. Customers will scan the Venmo QR code again and again. Aitizaz and his colleagues will serve falafel after falafel, platter after platter, and samosa after samosa. He will splatter white and hot sauce over and over. Students will come and go, the stories of where they come from and where they hope to go converging over a single transaction. And whether you are tired, hungry, stressed, lonely, drunk, or hallucinatory, you now know where to go.