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Within three years after the Gahunias opened Raja Sweets, India Grocers had opened down the street, adding to a handful of existing grocers in the area. Like Raja, it was originally a small space until Yatin Patel moved and expanded it in 1994, four years after the Gahunias had expanded at their own original location. Also in 1994, the Gahunias saw another long-term neighbor move into the Hillcroft Park Center: Keemat Grocers. Like India Grocers and Patel Brothers, it was one of many signs that the neighborhood was rapidly becoming more than just a small assortment of South Asian restaurants. Hillcroft was growing quickly.
During this time, Sharan graduated from Sharpstown High School and the University of Houston, going straight to work for Continental Airlines in its customer-service department for 11 years. But she was still always present at Raja Sweets when her parents needed her — sometimes whether she liked it or not. It had evolved into a full-blown family business by the early 2000s, with every staff member somehow related to each other.
Two of her uncles became the chefs as Yogi added North Indian-style fast food to the menu a few years after opening. And Resham continued her insistence on everything being made fresh, on-site, every single day. She resisted dumbing down their recipes, refusing to add cream to dishes like the popular butter chicken, refusing to skimp on ingredients. They bought their spices during twice-yearly trips back to India and supplemented what they couldn't bring home with groceries purchased from their neighbors along Hillcroft.
Houston, TX 77036
Region: Outer Loop - SW
And although the Gahunias were insistent upon keeping Raja Sweets a family-run operation, not every design goes according to plan.
Sharan's older sister was oxygen-deprived at birth, a condition that's left her permanently disabled, with the mind of a toddler, although she's often present at the restaurant with a sweet grin on her face. "She requires constant care," says Sharan.
Meanwhile, Sharan's brother has absolutely no interest in the family's restaurant lifestyle, to the extent that he distanced himself from the business, anglicizing his name from Raju to Roger. It was an unusual move in a community where the second generation typically works alongside and then takes over for their parents after retirement, whether they're keen on the family business or not. Until recently, he worked as an IT specialist at ExxonMobil before his job was outsourced.
Then, after fighting pancreatic cancer for years, Yogi died in 2002. It was a blow not only to the restaurant but to the Indian community. After 17 years, Yogi and Raja Sweets had become what Sharan calls "the compass, the magnetic north" of the Indian community in Houston. He was well known for his sweets, yes, but also for his benevolence: providing food and snacks for events at the India Culture Center or the South Asian Chamber of Commerce for free, his restaurant serving as a sort of living room for Hillcroft itself.
His generosity didn't end there — he often wrote $5,000 or $10,000 checks to other organizations that needed seed money. "The guy who started Masala Radio," recalls Sharan, "had a vision and an idea. He came to talk to my dad about it. He needed $10,000 to start and my dad wrote him a check and said, 'I believe in you.' Of course, he paid my dad back. But my dad did stuff like that all the time. Even with other restaurant owners. He always told them: 'You should do it, follow your dreams.'"
Yatin Patel has operated India Grocers for 22 years, most of that time spent in the Olympic Center that runs along Highway 59. The rakishly handsome eternal bachelor, originally from Zambia, has decorated his store with posters of cricket players and sports cars, and he always has a story for his customers, most of whom are regulars.
When the store first opened, Patel says, "Hillcroft didn't have a very strong Indian community. A few restaurants and stores, but that was it." But now, Patel says, "a good 20 to 25 percent of the business is not from Indians anymore — it's from other ethnicities. We carry a lot of English products, a lot of Caribbean stuff. But the truth is that more people are being exposed to Indian food these days."
"It doesn't seem like it's been 20 years," he said, smiling over the busy counter of his store one morning. Customers had lined up outside waiting for Patel's arrival that morning.
As the Indian community comes of age, so has the Pakistani community. Lashkari, whose own restaurant is Pakistani, estimates that 35 to 40 percent of the businesses along Hillcroft are now Pakistani-owned, which leads to the occasional tense moment between Indians and Pakistanis along Hillcroft, where the geopolitical boundaries between businesses and customers are even more blurred than they are back home.
While there are some anecdotes of tensions between the two groups, Lashkari has a different story to tell. He's never witnessed any conflict between Pakistanis and Indians, just people getting along as newly christened Houstonians. "Once you're over here, you're over here," he mused. "And I thank God for that," he said.
Sharan, too, is happy to have all kinds of customers in her restaurant. Being from Punjab, a vast region that straddles India and Pakistan, naturally inclines one to be accustomed to a great swirl of religions, cultures and traditions. Indian or Pakistani, Sikh or Hindu or Muslim — they're all welcome here. And like Yatin Patel, her customer base is shifting. "These days, we get a lot of Chinese, African-American and Latinos coming in," even though she says that Raja's food is "really authentic Indian food; we don't Americanize our flavors."
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.