Over the last nine months, you may have passed the Time Out to Eat Indian and Mediterranean food truck driving on Route 347 in Port Jefferson Station.
What you may not know is that during that time, according to owner Lubna Habibi, the food truck has gained such a following that she decided to open a full-service restaurant with the same name in Selden on Middle Country Road.
The food truck, which sits between Old Town Road and Terryville Road in front of Habibi's permanent office that serves as a home base for the food truck, related catering business, and new restaurant, features an "express menu" of items $5 and under and takes telephone orders. Combined, Habibi said the truck serves as many as 200 people per day.
Her restaurant opened Friday and features both a lunch and dinner buffet and an a la carte menu, and serves Halal meat to cater to the area's Muslim customers. It is located at 1228 Middle Country Road in the space formerly home to Masala Wok, which Habibi said was an Indian restaurant for more than a decade but which had been vacant for eight months.
"We kept a very reasonable price so everyone can afford it these days," she said. "The taste is awesome. It’s not just my saying. People love it."
Habibi wasn't joking. On Yelp, the Time Out to Eat food truck has garnered several 4- and 5-star reviews.
One reviewer called the food "off the hook," saying: "I have been driving by this place for so long. Finally I was able to stop and order something. ... The perfect flavor of sweet, savory, heat, and salty lamb. This place is situated next to a barber shop. I think most of the traffic in the lot is for the food truck and nothing else in the lot."
Another reviewer said: "People, please go down and feed your whole family from this truck (cheaply). The owners must be saluted for bringing such a business out here to the sticks ... You will realize why Halal food has taken the crown of street food in NYC as only tourists there really eat hot dogs. Next time you are waiting outside of some garbage formulaic casual dining place waiting for an hour for gut busting, salty reheated packaged food, LEAVE and support locally owned and interesting restaurants!"
The restaurant experienced some delays in dealing with the county's board of health and other challenges, Habibi said. Along the way, she said she hired the restaurant's seven full-time employees, trained them via the food truck, and paid them wages even though the restaurant hadn't opened yet.
Habibi is also planning a second Time Out to Eat food truck, which she said will be located on the campus of Stony Brook University.
The timing of the restaurant's opening also comes a few months after her previous restaurant on Portion Road, Silver Spoon, closed down when the shopping center was purchased by new owners who raised the rent, Habibi said.
She said she also owns a Time Out to Eat restaurant in New Jersey, and said she has worked with international airlines to develop Indian, Mediterranean and vegetarian menus for international flights. She is a 22-year resident of Hauppauge, where she lives with her husband Manzoor. The couple has three college-age daughters.
Habibi wasn't always in the restaurant industry; in fact, she said she started out as an electronics engineer. But when she moved to the U.S. in 1983, she decided to pursue her dream of opening a restaurant. She recounted a story she said she remembers from her childhood: her mother, recently diagnosed with cancer, wanted a bowl of soup but their cook was off that day. So Habibi, then 7-years-old, made the soup instead.
"Since the very beginning I loved cooking. There is no limit. I enjoy it so much," she said. "... Food is not only food. It’s poetry. If you bring up a plate in front of the customer, it has to say something to you. It comes with love, with experience, with presentation."