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Islamic butcher shop an outpost of cultural fusion in East L.A.

Al Salam Polleria opened on Whittier Boulevard with plans to provide fresh poultry killed according to Islamic law. Instead it has been embraced by its Latino neighbors.

July 22, 2012|By Weston Phippen, Los Angeles Times
  • Josefina Martinez tosses bags of chicken for sale at Al Salam Polleria. The shop was intended to cater to Muslims but is located in East L.A. due to zoning laws on the slaughter of live animals.
Josefina Martinez tosses bags of chicken for sale at Al Salam Polleria.… (Christina House, For the…)

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.

PHOTOS: Al Salam Polleria in Los Angeles

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.

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