Imagine All the Pitas

Texas is a state that is burdened with a certain widespread reputation for recreational violence. Even the slogan of the state highway department's anti- littering campaign, "Don't Mess with Texas," implies a certain John Wayne-ish threat in what is ostensibly a humorous play on a word. But in reality, Houston has avoided the large-scale public violence that has racked so many other American cities in the last 40 years. And the city mostly continues to avoid senseless hostility -- knock on wood -- since the September 11 attacks.

After the consulates and mosques, perhaps the most visible reminder of Houston's many residents who have ties to the Middle East is restaurants. In the days following the destruction of the World Trade Center, restaurant business dropped sharply across the entire Houston scene. It has continued to be very weak at many of the high-end, white-tablecloth establishments, but the mid-range and casual dining spots appear to be coming back -- no matter what their ethnic associations. An admittedly unscientific restaurant survey suggests Houstonians are behaving quite sensibly in this tense time.

For several years now, people traveling along Richmond Avenue east of Kirby Drive have read the promotional messages on the signboard of Pappadeaux Seafood Kitchen (2410 Richmond, 713-527-9137) and the humorous ripostes posted by neighboring Khyber North Indian Grill (2510 Richmond, 713-942-9424) (see "Best Sign War," September 20). After September 11, the jokes stopped. Owner Mickey Kapoor reports that the good-natured teasing was suspended out of respect for the victims.

"Business was way down the week of the attacks," Kapoor says. "I called some of the restaurants out along Hillcroft and Bellaire, where their main customers are Muslims themselves, and they were doing a terrible business because many of the customers did not want to go out in public."

While India is not involved in exporting terrorism and Kapoor is not Muslim (his grammar schooling took place in an Irish parochial school), the Khyber Pass is the historic passageway between what is today Pakistan and the Pathan strongholds of Afghanistan, the original home of the Taliban.

A lunchtime visit to the Khyber Grill revealed a dining room filled with customers of many ethnic backgrounds, in true Houston fusion fashion. Kapoor thinks he may even be getting extra business because of events. "Customers I only see now and then have come in all through this week," he says. "Maybe I am getting a sympathy reaction, with people deciding to come in to show us some support."

In the days following the attack, Rice Village's Istanbul Grill & Deli (5613 Morningside Drive, 713-526-2800) and the Skewers Café & Grill (3991 Richmond, 713-599-1444) also were filled with many different kinds of people enjoying their meals. Considering that Turkey is a secular country (with a Muslim religious tradition) that has been a Middle Eastern friend of the United States for over half a century, we hope the Istanbul Grill continues to prosper.

Lori Abdallah, with husband George, owns Skewers as well as Abdallah's Bakery and Deli (3939 Hillcroft, 713-952-4747). Skewers is an English word, and the counter-service shish kebab emporium serves a more or less generic Middle Eastern cuisine. Abdallah reports that business at Skewers has been pretty good but that sales at the bakery have been terrible. Asked if there have been any unpleasant incidents since the 11th, she says, "the day after, there were one or two telephone calls where people said ugly things."

Over at Sheikh Chilli's (6121 Hillcroft, 713-995-6768), a popular Pakistani counter-service restaurant that has been in business nearly two decades, the dining area during a weekday lunch seemed somewhat subdued, but far from deserted. Sheikh Chilli's is named after the protagonist of a series of classic Pakistani children's stories, not a religious leader. It serves hallal meats, which are prepared in accordance with Islamic dietary laws. While not particularly talkative during our visit, owner Anwar Dhanani allowed that business was "pretty okay" and that there had been no harassment directed at the restaurant.

At times such as these, the most powerful message one can send to murderous fanatics and bigots worldwide is that Americans, who are not a nationality but a group of people living under a common, mutually agreed-upon set of laws, will not be baited into turning on one another, regardless of the immensity of the provocation. That's what's meant by "thinking globally, acting locally."


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