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It is a Wednesday afternoon during lunch service at Raja Sweets on Hillcroft and a line winds in front of the brightly lit case of sweets in the middle of the restaurant. Customers are having their cafeteria-style trays filled with golden-colored butter chicken and soft green saag paneer, then taking their seats in the unassuming dining room. And they're ordering sweets from the case by the dozen.
"Gulab jamun is by far our best seller," says Sharan Gahunia. "Almond or plain." The colorfully attired, always smiling Gahunia is the daughter of Joginder "Yogi" and Resham Gahunia, who opened Raja Sweets in 1985 along what was then a decidedly non-Indian portion of Hillcroft. In the 25 years that Raja Sweets has been open, Yogi has passed away (in 2002), but not before leaving an incredible legacy in Houston.
"Yogi was a friend of mine," says Kaiser Lashkari, the genial owner of Himalaya, one of dozens of South Asian restaurants that have cropped up along Hillcroft in the last 25 years. "He was the founding father of Indian sweets in Houston. He opened the first sweets shop in Houston. He was very much a part of bringing Hillcroft onto the scene."
Houston, TX 77036
Region: Outer Loop - SW
"It was little-bitty when he started," Lashkari laughs. And despite that space of only 1,500 square feet, it was selling Indian sweets made from scratch on the premises, a tradition that continues to this day.
Sharan Gahunia says that many of the big-name Indian restaurants in town get their sweets from Raja, including the popular, ricotta-like Chenna Juli treats, each with a cherry on top. "We made those first," she grins. "Now every sweet shop sells them."
It's difficult to imagine that the successful shop, which is crowded nearly every day of the week for lunch and dinner, was ever small — it doubled in size in 1990 — or that its owners, Yogi and his wife Resham, were ever disadvantaged in this thriving area. But the Gahunias were pioneers in every sense of the word, arriving in Houston with not much money and a family to feed more than 25 years ago.
Now their sweet shop is a full-service, fast-food-style Indian restaurant that feeds other families day in and day out, a restaurant which has been instrumental in transforming this stretch of Hillcroft into what it is today: the Mahatma Gandhi District, home to many of the city's Indian and Pakistani businesses.
Indians and Pakistanis alike have known for years that Hillcroft is the place to go in Houston for not only food, but saris, gold jewelry, the latest Bollywood movies or music imported directly from South Asia. But when the area was officially designated the Mahatma Gandhi district, it was clear the rest of the city had taken note.
"If you talk to longtime Houston Desi residents, they'll tell you that the establishment of the Hillcroft area as the 'Gandhi District' is a milestone," said Lynn Ghose Cabrera, co-founder along with Aditi Raghuram of Desi Living, a blog that covers social aspects of the city's vibrant South Asian community, and social chair of Houston's immense Network of Indian Professionals. "It's one signifier among many that as a community, we've come of age," she continued.
A gold-framed photograph of Yogi, draped lightly with floral garlands, looks down over the shop from above the sweets case at Raja. He has a gentle smile on his face, his eyes seeming to watch the patrons fondly.
After he died, Sharan says, she and her mother received an offer of $1.5 million to sell the restaurant, which they swiftly declined. "I will never close or sell it," Sharan says. "I grew up in it."
The Mahatma Gandhi District is a relatively new name for this piece of Hillcroft, which marks its borders with Highway 59 to the south and Westpark to the north. The three roads combine in such a way as to form a little triangle within the tangle of streets and strip malls, a triangle which is still called by its other names: "Little India" to Houstonians, or simply "Hillcroft" to the city's large Indian community.
This area has been able to thrive not only because of its centralized location within the city and its increasing visibility, but also because of the demographics of the Indian community itself. South Asian population numbers in Houston have mushroomed over the past ten years. In the 2000 census, Harris County reported nearly 36,000 Indians, with a median household income $11,000 over the average for the rest of the county: $53,000 per year. In Fort Bend County, the median household income was $83,000, with a population of nearly 13,000.
Although official 2010 Census data aren't yet available, a 2009 American Community Survey demographic estimate put the Harris County Indian population at 46,125 and the Fort Bend County Indian population at 25,104.
Nearly 65 percent of those Indians in Harris County had college degrees in 2000, with 62 percent reported in Fort Bend County. Compared to a mere 18 percent of the overall population in Harris County and a slightly higher 25 percent in Fort Bend County, it's a staggering difference in education between South Asians — also called Desis — and the general populace. It's these levels of education and income that have made Hillcroft a success, especially for the businesses that deal in expensive items like gold jewelry at Karat 22 and saris at Roop Sari Palace, where a basic summer outfit starts at around $140.
What a great story!
Check out Shanai - the Pakistani buffet off 59, behind Bijan Persian Grill. Incredible food and simply incredible service. A client of mine from Mumbai turned me onto this restaurant, and I have been going ever since. And if you are counting calories and on a diet, you can find some great veggie and grilled items here. Little India is the jewel in our city's eye.
I really like the name "Little India" for the Hillcroft area as it signifies they really have come of age.
And it's simple to understand and remember.
It reminds me of the story about Wisconsin residents in the early part of last century who were trying to come up with a name for their new opera house.
After much debate and long winded discussions they decided to name their opera house ...Opera House.
Simple and people know just exactly what you are talking about.
Great article. I learned a bunch!
Nice article, Katharine. I had lunch in the area on Friday at London Sizzler (at the corner of Hillcroft and SW Freeway) and there are a lot of fun businesses around there. In fact there is a "sweets" store next door to the restaurant (owned by the same people) and we took a box of 'em with us.
*sigh* This is one of the things I miss about Houston. Kansas City has nothing like Hillcroft, and it's a damn shame.
Great, great, article. It makes me hungry all over agian and I just had lunch. It is one of my first stops when heading down Hillcroft and ending at Indian groceries.
Great article K~This has been my little secret for years....shopping at India Grocers (cheapest rice and spices around), eating in and around the Hillcroft area for over fifteen years....I buy housewarming gifts and jewelry in this area and I have been known to buy a sari or three. I love Bollywood films and Indian House Music is probably up there with 80's music for me....great music/films to be found in this area as well.I'm sure that if I had a past life regression, I *know* that it would place me somewhere on the Goa coast or in Bombay, dressed in bright colors, eating street food....I'm positive!!!!
"....She chuckles. "He would have said, 'Now let's get the signs in Hindi.'"....." I say why not, they should be in Hindi....
Thank you again for shedding light on one my favorite places in the city. Period.
Wow thats really cool when you think about it.
Megan - it would be interesting to hear exactly what Kansas City's desi scene is these days. Back in the early 80s, there was exactly one grocery store. And my family traveled there from 50 miles away to buy the basics.
We're lucky to have Hillcroft. :-)
Lynn - I saw your essay (it was beautiful!). Where exactly was the desi store in KC? I'd be glad to check it out and report back.