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It's an assessment that Kaiser Lashkari backs up with anecdotal figures of his own. "When I came here in 1980, there were like 50,000 Indians in Houston," he said. "Today, there are 130,000 and about 50,000 Pakistanis. And of course, we've also got Indian people that have migrated here from Africa, from South Africa, from East Africa."
"The Indians are professionals," he continued. "They're educated people: doctors, lawyers, engineers, software personnel. They have the income to support our businesses." And those businesses would, in turn, support a change for the area in January 2010, when — after many years of petitioning by local business owners — gleaming white signs trimmed in saffron-colored steel were installed above the bright-green street signs, designating the area as "the Mahatma Gandhi District."
Aku Patel owns Karat 22, the largest jewelry showroom in Texas and one of the first Indian businesses to move to Hillcroft. The glittering interior of his jewelry store looks like a museum, and he's proud of the fact that his store is one of only six licensed Rolex dealers in town.
Houston, TX 77036
Region: Outer Loop - SW
"People came to Hillcroft from as far as Louisiana, Arkansas, New Mexico and South Texas to do their shopping for their kids' weddings or big occasions like that," Patel says of the years before the signs were installed. "This was a good market, good for Houston's economy."
The original plan had been to rename Hillcroft itself "Mahatma Gandhi Avenue," but the City of Houston requires that at least 75 percent of the businesses along a street put their signatures on a petition in support of a street name change, and the India Culture Center — which spearheaded the signature drive — was never able to obtain that large a percentage.
However, the Center — in conjunction with amenable business owners — was able to come up with the $10,000 it took to install the 31 temple-shaped signs and designate the street as a so-called cultural district.
"You see, the name Mahatma Gandhi itself means peace," says Patel. "He's a person who propagated peaceful ways. Nonviolence. We come from an area where we believe in nonviolence and we do our things very peacefully, so we thought it very appropriate to have this area have a deeper meaning like that."
He continued: "Sometimes ethnic areas become a little bit less — how do you say it? — to the mainstream community, they're perceived as downward areas. And we didn't want to give that impression. We wanted to welcome the mainstream American people: Come on into this area. This is a nice area, a very safe area."
When the Gahunias first came to Houston in 1981, there were only a handful of Indian stores along Hillcroft. But that wasn't exactly the family's primary concern. With little money and three children to feed, Yogi and Resham had to get to work. Sharan remembers those thin days, when her mother made small meals mostly from rice.
It wasn't the Gahunias' first experience in America, nor was it their first experience in the restaurant industry. Originally from Punjab, the Gahunias had run a successful restaurant in London for a few years before the gloomy weather became too much to bear. They landed in Cleveland on the advice of a family member, and started a restaurant called Front Row in 1979. Three years later, the weather was once again too cold and the economy had soured significantly in Ohio, so they moved to Houston with little more than the hope of opening another restaurant in this new town.
Yogi and Resham stuck with what they knew: the food-service industry. Yogi got a job at Burger King and Resham worked at Dunkin' Donuts, saving nearly every penny they made, dreaming of the day they'd be running their own place once again.
By 1985, they had saved enough money to open Raja Sweets. Their neighbors in the strip center were a club called Traffic Jam and a Champps. "We were the first," says Sharan of the family's bold decision to open their restaurant in an almost completely non-Indian part of town.
For the first 15 years the shop was in business, Yogi and Resham never stopped working. "From 1986 to 2002, my mother was literally here for 12 hours a day, seven days a week," Sharan says. "My dad wasn't a big travel or vacation person." But they were too busy supplying the city with freshly made sweets to take a break anyway.
"Every Indian loves sweets. They want to literally have them every day," laughs Aku Patel. He recalled a conversation with his old friend Yogi: "He said, 'I'm gonna serve fresh sweets. Not pre-made sweets coming from New York or India or Pakistan. I'm gonna make them right here.' He was the first guy to actually make sweets in Houston."
"Considering they use sweets at temples, at birthdays, at parties, at festivals, at New Year," Sharan says, it wasn't a surprise that Raja Sweets took off the way it did. "Everything is based around sweets. Anything happy that happens. You have a kid, they give out sweets."
The other draw at Raja Sweets was the sheer amount of home-cooked North Indian food one could get for cheap. Patel laughs when he recalls how much food Yogi piled on the plates. "I used to tell him, 'Yogi, these portions are too big!' He said, 'No, I want them to be satisfied they ate as much as they could for $3.50."
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.
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. :-)
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.