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As with Kaiser Lashkari, his neighbor in the Olympic Center, Patel gives a lot of credit to Raja Sweets for bringing Houston's South Asian community to Hillcroft, although he grins as he says that his store is as much of a landmark for Indians now as Raja Sweets once was. But, he admits, Raja Sweets was instrumental in jump-starting that initial development.
"We all complement each other. It kind of cemented this thing. If someone wanted to come out to Hillcroft, everything they wanted was here. We became a permanent fixture."
Of the great concentration of South Asian businesses along this tiny street, Patel is an optimist: "Some people are afraid of competition. I think it's a good thing; I've never been the one to not direct customers to a competitor. There are just so many stores here."
Houston, TX 77036
Region: Outer Loop - SW
But stores aren't the only entities to have sprung up in the last 25 years. There are a half-dozen Indian and Pakistani newspapers available in restaurants and shops, such as the Voice of Asia and the India Herald. There is Masala Radio, an AM station featuring all-Indian music and talk shows such as Meena Datt's long-running Music of India, broadcast for 25 years. Big-name Indian singers make tour stops in Houston: Sonu Nigam, a wildly popular singer from Haryana, played a recent sold-out show at the Arena Theatre, just down the street. And each night, the Bollywood 6 theater on Highway 6 is packed, screening movies like Love U...Mr. Kalakaar! and Double Dhamaal.
"You know every movie in India is a musical," laughs Kaiser Lashkari about the prevalence of Bollywood culture in Houston. Across Hillcroft from his restaurant, Maharani Music keeps the party going after the films have left the theater. "He brings all these music CDs and DVDs from India, all the latest films and movies, all the new music that's released," Lashkari says.
And just as vital to the culture is the presence of several professional dance academies in Houston, teaching dance to young Indian girls. "Dance is an integral part of Indian culture," Lashkari notes, making schools like the Abhinaya School of Performing Arts and the Shri Natraj School of Dance all the more important.
Temples, too, have proliferated here along with social and professional networks like the one that Lynn Ghose Cabrera chairs.
The growth has amazed even members of the South Asian community itself. Says Ghose Cabrera of the area when she first moved here from Oklahoma ten years ago, "What I remember is the awe I felt that so many Desi and other ethnic businesses were concentrated in an area, and thriving. It was my first inkling that Houston's a city on par with other well-established, world-class cities. It was my go-to place for buying bulk spices and staples, to have a meal, have threading done, and to buy Desi sundries that you just couldn't find in the mainstream."
"Of course, these days," she says, "you can buy bindis just about everywhere."
Nearly 400 of the Gahunias' customers showed up to celebrate the restaurant's 25th anniversary party on April 24. The Sunday afternoon was filled with bhangra music spun by a local DJ, T-shirt giveaways and, of course, free food and sweets. Yogi would have liked it that way.
"My dad used to say this should be Little India," Sharan says. "It was after he passed away that this became the Gandhi District, but I think he would have been so happy to have seen that. He would have been so proud."
She chuckles. "He would have said, 'Now let's get the signs in Hindi.'"
Yogi had other grand plans for the district, too. "Before he passed away," Sharan says, "he was saying someone would make so much money if there was an Indian movie theater right here on Hillcroft. Somebody should invest $10 to $15 million and just build a really nice theater. Everyone would go."
Aku Patel agrees. Continued South Asian development along Hillcroft is a given, although they're somewhat limited geographically. "Moving on the other side of 59 would be difficult because there is a very high Latin population. And they are expanding this way as we are expanding that way. We are meeting in the middle," he laughs. "I don't think we'll go beyond 59, but the possibility is that we'll go a little bit deeper into Harwin; that is pretty much where the expansion will be. More east-west than north-south."
Traces of this expansion are already seen in the pages of local newspapers like the Pakistan Times, where ads for South Asian accountants, lawyers and insurance agents already show Harwin addresses alongside their smiling headshots. And those saffron-trimmed, temple-shaped street signs are already placed prominently above several of Harwin's own street signs.
As for Raja Sweets, in the entire time that Yogi ran the restaurant, he increased prices only twice. Sharan doesn't see any reason to increase them now.
She doesn't speak much about her father's death. She mostly talks about the future, but with a few asides here and there about trying to get her mother Resham to slow down after her father passed away in 2002. After all those long years working without a break, Resham was finally ready to take one day a week off — with some convincing from Sharan.
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.