Using the handle of a plastic fork, I managed to get the marrow out of the bones of my sensational goat vindaloo. I spread the fatty, curry-flavored marrow goo on hot, puffy garlic naan bread and savored every bite.
The curries at Sher-E-Punjab, an Indian sweet shop and restaurant in the shopping center facing Alief Clodine at the intersection of Highway 6, are served on your choice of Styrofoam plates or the kind of round aluminum containers usually used for takeout orders. The cups are Styrofoam, and the utensils are plastic. In three visits to Sher-E-Punjab, I never saw another table occupied. Which is strange, since much of the food is excellent.
On my first visit, we ordered chili chicken along with the goat vindaloo, and we asked for both dishes to be seasoned "hot." The chili chicken came in a tomato, cumin and chile sauce that lit up my mouth. The big pieces of goat in the vindaloo were extremely tender, and the curry sauce was sensational.
We also sampled dal makhni, a dish of mixed lentils in a thick cream sauce that was buttery-rich and fiery-hot. On the side we ate some terrific onion kulcha, a stuffed bread with a lacy exterior.
Although we ordered chana masala and palak paneer, neither of these two dishes were delivered to our table. After a while, we asked the Spanish-speaking server what happened to the other two entrées. He returned with a dish of dal, which is made with lentils rather than chana, or chickpeas, and a strange-looking dish of pureed greens with big pools of white yogurt floating in it. I suspect the palak paneer was thrown together, heated quickly and didn't have time to cook properly.
The chef at Sher-E-Punjab wears the turban and beard of the Sikhs. While he is cooking, he also wears a strip of cotton pulled across his beard and mouth. According to a poster on the wall near the refrigerated display case where the soft drinks are kept, Sher-E-Punjab means "Lion of the Punjab." The illustration depicts Maharaja Ranjit Singh, who was crowned in 1801, unified the Sikhs and drove the Afghans out.
I asked the owner, who is also a Sikh, where all the other customers were. "Sixteen years ago, when we first opened, this restaurant was crowded all the time. Indians, Pakistanis, Sikhs, Hindus, Muslims, everybody came here," he said. "Then the Muslims stopped eating here." When I asked him why, he launched into a complicated explanation of diverging cultures in a rapid-fire Indian accent that I couldn't entirely understand.
A few days later, I was eating a Lahore-style breakfast of paratha, choey and chai at King's Chicken on Beechnut when I struck up a conversation with a Houston Muslim.
"There is no problem between Hindus and Muslims in Houston," he said. "Sher-E-Punjab isn't so popular anymore because of the competition."
Sixteen years ago, when two brothers opened Raja Sweets and Sher-E-Punjab, Houston's entire Indian and Pakistani community gathered in these two eateries because they were the first of their kind, my breakfast companion explained.
But there are lots of Indian restaurants in Houston representing the many different cuisines of the subcontinent now. Royal Sweets, a few blocks away from where we were eating breakfast, is similar to Raja Sweets and Sher-E-Punjab, but with the flavors of Lahore.
The next time I ate at Sher-E-Punjab, I was joined by talk-radio personality and KTRH AM station manager Michael Berry. Berry's wife Nandita is Indian, and in their 18 years of marriage, she has trained the radio star to be a discerning critic of the cuisines of the subcontinent.
I asked him about relations between Hindus and Muslims in Houston. He said he hadn't noticed any changes, and that as far as he knew, Hindus and Muslims frequented a lot of the same establishments.
Berry loved the long-cooked, tender cauliflower curry at Sher-E-Punjab. He also liked the dense aloo paratha. The dark-brown potato-and-pea-stuffed flatbread was authentically thick and chewy, but a little too heavy for my tastes.
Neither of us was very fond of the chicken tikka masala. The big chunks of tandoori chicken breast meat in the creamy tomato sauce were too large and too dense. A dish of fish curry was pleasant, but the fish, which I would guess to be tilapia, was just too bland to stand up to the spicy sauce.
On my third visit to Sher-E-Punjab, I picked up some food to go. At home, I tried the tandoori chicken and discovered that the dark meat was excellent, while the white meat was as dried out as it had been in my chicken tikka masala. The rice in my vegetable biryani was extremely flavorful and highly seasoned, even if the green beans tasted frozen. And the naan was top-notch, as always. But I was quite upset to discover that I had no sauce to dip my bread in. I had ordered paneer makhni, a dish of Indian cheese in spicy curry sauce that the owner highly recommended. But the dish was missing. And according to my receipt, I had paid for it.
I called the restaurant and complained, but the offer to give me the dish if I drove back over there and picked it up didn't make my dinner taste any better.
I highly recommend the goat vindaloo, chili chicken, cauliflower curry and dal makhni at Sher-E-Punjab. "The reason we don't have silverware is because everyone orders takeout," the owner said when I went back to get my paneer makhni one day. I learned my lesson and didn't bother sitting down.
Unless you love eating out of aluminum containers with a plastic fork, you should get your food to go too. And while you're there, open every dish and make sure they gave you what you paid for.
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