Islamic butcher shop an outpost of cultural fusion in East L.A.
To the little girl, going to work with her father felt like visiting a petting zoo, with chickens, ducks, doves and rabbits in cages in the back of the shop. Even as she fed the animals, she knew about the other part of Al Salam Polleria. The part with things like the boiler, the de-featherer and the cutting station.
“But I guess, yeah, if you think of it as a butcher shop then that might be weird,” said Iman Elrabat-Gabr, now 37. “But the memories I have of it are not a butcher shop, more of a farm.”
Al Salam Polleria’s success, as well as its distinction, can be found in its East L.A. location and in its name — al salaam is Arabic for peace, polleria is Spanish for poultry shop.
It was never their intention to end up in East L.A. But as they would find, it was quite fortunate.
Elrabat-Gabr’s father, Safwat Elrabat, emigrated from Egypt, figuring he could fill a niche in Los Angeles by selling fresh poultry killed according to Islamic law, called halal.
How he arrived on this stretch of Whittier Boulevard, a heavily Latino neighborhood, came down to zoning laws that allow the storage and slaughter of live animals. Still, when Elrabat and his brother-in-law opened the shop in 1984, they expected a line of fellow Muslims trailing out the door.
“Yeah, it didn’t happen that way,” Elrabat-Gabr said.
Instead the local community embraced the new polleria. It still does. Here, there is no culture clash.
It also didn’t hurt that Elrabat placed a super-sized white chicken on the roof, like the Michelin Man, a kind of lighthouse beacon welcoming the neighborhood. In fact, local residents began shopping here with such regularity that Elrabat and most of the family quickly learned enough Spanish to know exactly what customers wanted.
Elrabat-Gabr sees strong similarities between the Egyptian and Latin cultures. Both place great importance on family and on respect, she said, and because the Moors controlled parts of Spain for hundreds of years, the languages share similar words.
Her father worked at the polleria until the day before he died. That was 12 years ago. And now his daughter and other family members run it, always keeping in mind how much pride he had in this business.
On a recent weekday, a handful of customers stand at the counter. One man orders a live chicken and stuffs it into a box to take home. He likes to kill it himself, he said, adding that he has been shopping at Al Salam for two years with no intention of changing. “Vives son mas rico” (“Live are more delicious,”) said the man, who gave only his first name, Ricardo.
The woman behind the counter, Sarah Elhawary — Elrabat-Gabr’s cousin — just finished high school and likes working at the shop. But she showers “for like an hour” afterward, she admitted, because of the raw smell of live animals. She speaks English and Arabic to her family; she speaks Spanish to the customers who ask her for things like chicken feet, a delicacy in some Latin countries.
Elrabat-Gabr said the family at first threw away the chicken feet — “we thought they were trash,” she says — but quickly learned.
Another unexpected request came when a woman asked for a chicken pumped full of tequila, like a water balloon, then killed.
“We wouldn’t do that,” Elrabat-Gabr said.
Islamic prayers hang behind the register and a nearby sign cautions workers, “Cuidado Con el Escalon,” or careful with the stairs.
Past the stairs and through the double doors, chickens cluck, turkeys sleep or stare with eyes like lacquered blueberries, and a Latino man named Roberto, who is wearing an aquamarine apron and a dust mask, is the hand of fate.
Al Salam Polleria only kills chickens according to halal a few times each week — on an order-by-order basis: a Muslim person cuts the throat with a sharp knife, out of sight of the other animals, facing Mecca while saying in Arabic, “In the name of God, the greatest,” Elrabat-Gabr said.
But the Latino customers don’t ask for halal meat so nearly all of the 100 or so birds the shops sells each day are killed in the same expert fashion, minus the prayer. Once the dead birds are plucked, Josefina Martinez, 43, takes over. She has worked here for almost 20 years. For her last two pregnancies, Martinez said, she worked until the day she went into labor.
“Como chicken,” she said of the squawks she made going into labor at the polleria.
For the busy winter season, the polleria hires as many as 10 extra workers to help fill orders for Thanksgiving, Christmas and Dia de los Muertos, or Day of the Dead, Nov. 2.
Martinez, who jokes that she is like Elrabat-Gabr’s mother, places the chicken pieces into bags — sold for $1.99 a pound — and puts them on the open window where they rest behind the register.
Many customers have been coming to the shop for years. Elena Luz, 52, is one of them, having discovered the polleria 10 years ago. When she was growing up in Chihuahua, Mexico, she said, her family raised chickens and coming to Al Salam reminds her of home.
“I want fresh chicken like back home,” she says, standing at the counter Friday morning, part of her usual routine. Behind the counter is Maha Elhawary, Elrabat-Gabr’s aunt. “I heard that they serve fresh chicken, so I come and it is much better than from the store.”
“She took me to her home,” Luz said, noting that Elhawary’s invitation shows what the shop is all about. “She is such a good person. Very kind.”
Elrabat-Gabr’s brother Ahmed Elrabat said he recognizes customers from when he worked at the shop as a youngster.
“I remember some that were younger than me and now they’re in their 20s or they’re coming with their kids now,” he said.
Another Latina steps to the counter and asks for three medium-sized chickens; “son chiquitos” (“they’re little ones”), she said of the bags up front. She must wait 10 minutes for the man in the blue apron to select and kill, and for Martinez’s deft chops at the cutting board. The woman walks behind the counter and grabs the store phone, chatting as she waits. The owners don’t mind.
“We were relieved and very thankful that it worked out that way,” Ahmed said. “That we ended up being where we are in the heart of East Los Angeles on Whittier Boulevard.”
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