Go behind the scenes at Sweet n Namkin to see how they make their sublime dahi puri and more in our slideshow.
I rarely order the same dish twice when reviewing restaurants. But I've recently found myself utterly enraptured by the dahi puri at Sweet n Namkin, to the point where I've now ordered them three times and am currently planning my fourth visit back for more.
There is no other sensation quite like eating dahi puri. It's a multisensory extravaganza of warm and cold, crunchy and soft, sweet and spicy, thick and runny, all in one thrilling bite. Each little puff of puri is as delicately constructed as a bird's nest, containing unknown treasures hidden inside: There is no strictly standard recipe for the snacks. At Sweet n Namkin, the dahi puri come filled with spiced chickpeas, thinly tart yogurt and two kinds of chutney: one dark and sweet, the other minty and spicy. You take the entire puri into your mouth in one bite and enjoy the shattering explosion of flavors and textures and temperatures across your tongue.
Because the dahi puri at Sweet n Namkin cost only $3.99 for a plate of eight, it's an activity that can be enjoyed alone on the cheap or with others — as it really should be eaten — as an appetizer for the dinner ordered from Salaam Namaste, right next door.
Salaam Namaste and Sweet n Namkin are side-by-side restaurants co-owned by three brothers: "Two real and one cousin," as Sweet n Namkin's gregarious manager, Amy, puts it. The two restaurants are connected by an internal door like a hotel suite. But you can enter from either front door and order from either side, regardless of which dining room you end up in. And regardless of where you sit, prepare to stuff yourself silly with some of the city's finest Desi food.
It was this dual aspect that first attracted me to the restaurants: both Indian and Pakistani at once, each restaurant entirely different from the other except for an affinity for serving up delicious Desi dishes from their separate kitchens. My friend Dr. Ricky had described Sweet n Namkin and Salaam Namaste as polar opposites of one another, despite their shared ownership. One side, he said, was all sweetness and light: bright colors and 100 percent vegetarian chaat and sweets presided over by a gregarious woman who tries to feed you in the same manner as a loving, clucking mother would. And on the other side, dark colors and man things: meat dish after meat dish, cricket bats lined up behind the counter, snooker and billiard tables in the back and Pakistani cricket matches on the many televisions.
On my first visit to the two restaurants, it was this side that we ordered from first. I quickly noticed, as Dr. Ricky had intimated, that this was definitely a masculine domain. My female friends and I were the only women in the place. Despite this, the gentlemen behind the counter were accommodating, helpful and friendly, guiding us on how to order and inviting us to sit on whichever side of the restaurant we preferred. We ended up on the more "feminine" side — Sweet n Namkin — only because the musky smell of the nag champa incense was a bit too strong at Salaam Namaste.
One of the other things that brought me to this section of West Bellfort was the promise of the best naan bread in the city. As several red baskets of steaming hot, slightly oil-sheened naan hit the table, eyes widened and a veritable feeding frenzy ensued. This was not the puny, withered naan seen sitting under heat lamps on sad Indian buffets: Salaam Namaste's naan is downy and thick, with just a hint of slick salt on the tongue. We used it in favor of any utensils that night, scooping up saffron-hued chicken keema and mossy green palak goat. It was used to grab up chunks of bright orange tawa chicken and delicate bites of fish biryani, each mouthful better than the last.
As I looked around the table, friends passing jewel-toned dishes to each other and eating with abandon, I was reminded of a passage in a Patricia Highsmith novel wherein the female protagonist is toying with the concept that someday, every normal activity will unknowingly be your last before you die. What will be the last song you heard, the last book you read, the last meal you ate? If this feast from Salaam Namaste was my unknowing last meal before I perished, I would die quite happy.
Chaat houses are finally becoming more popular in Houston as Americans' concept of Indian and Pakistani food expands from simply saag paneer, chicken tikka masala and various curries. Sweet n Namkin is a classic example of a chaat house, or a restaurant that one stops into for snacks and sweets while catching up with friends.
Chaat can range from small, bite-size gems like dahi puri to massive, floppy, tearable dosai, more or less the Indian equivalent of a crepe. Working your way through the sizable chaat menu at Sweet n Namkin lets you find a type of chaat that best suits you, but the journey thankfully doesn't come close to breaking the bank. I'm not a fan of the pani puri here, but the bhel puri is a delight. If you loved Rice Krispies as a child, bhel puri is an adult twist on an old favorite, whether Indian cooks realize it or not: puffed rice mixed with slightly spicy potatoes and a tangy tamarind sauce, addictive for both its punch and its crunch.
On Sundays, the shop serves that Pakistani and Northern Indian favorite: halwa puri, an odd but tasty dish of sweet halva (here, a sweet spread made with semolina, ghee and sugar) and spicy potatoes and chickpeas, with a side of bread to sop it all up. Traditionally a breakfast item, halwa puri has grown in popularity in Pakistan to the point where it's eaten at any time of day. Sweet n Namkin manager Amy told me that "people come in for it starting at 10 o'clock and want it all day long."
The wonderfully effusive and colorful Amy is the queen of the upsell, and you'll quickly find yourself taken in by her fervent descriptions of mixed vegetable pakora, sticky-sweet balls of gulab jamun, shiny silver plates of thali. Like another notoriously brilliant front-of-house personality, John Katsimikis of One's a Meal, she is quite gifted at guessing what you would like and coercing you into eating it. She's not shy about her interactions, either.
"Here's your fresh apple juice, with lots of iron to make you strong!" she sang out to one woman. "Come here, sweetie! I have your mango lassi ready to go," she called out a few minutes later. "She makes this entire place," whispered one dining companion as he watched her call out orders to customers, smiling at each one like they were her own flesh and blood.
"It's so rare to find good North Indian food in Houston," sighed my dining companion, Nishta Mehra, over a table full of food one night. Goat keema, masala bindi, several types of puri and a heap of fluffy naan were scattered like puzzle pieces that we were working to assemble. A sip of cucumber raita here, a dunk into some dark-red chutney there, a swipe into the bowl of goat keema and one bountiful bite was ready to go. Repeat as necessary.
She drank the last of her raita from the bowl and contemplated the keema. "This is amazing," she said with a huge smile. Mehra's family settled in Memphis but are originally from Punjab. The glut of South Indian restaurants in our city means that she often has a hard time finding food that reminds her of home. That didn't seem to be a problem at Sweet n Namkin.
"Of course, a lot of it is because Salaam Namaste is Pakistani," she explained. Like its neighbor, the restaurant serves both Indian and Pakistani food, although there's more emphasis on the latter. "That's why there's also beef on the menu there. But Pakistanis and Northern Indians eat so much of the same food," she continued, "that it's all good."
We dawdled over yet another plate of dahi puri, then turned our attention to ordering food to take home. I grabbed a pair of paratha to go, which made a spectacular breakfast the next morning, warmed up on the skillet until the ghee-saturated flatbread became slightly crispy on the outside. Dipped into the container of thin, tart yogurt that accompanied it, the paratha lost a fair amount of its inherent spiciness, much to the appreciation of my still sleepy stomach, but still packed enough to wake me up with plenty of force. Pakistanis can keep halwa puri as their breakfast go-to; as wonderful as it is, I'll take some toasty paratha any morning.
As we went up to the register to pay, Amy was sure to tell us about the week's upcoming specials. There's a new chef at Sweet n Namkin, she said, who's introducing more than just chaat to the menu. "We'll have sarson ka saag soon," she said. "Served with makki ki roti!" Mehra's eyes widened with excitement as she listened to the rest of Amy's pitch: "It's a traditional Punjab meal," she continued.
"Oh, I know!" answered Mehra. She turned to me: "It's like the Indian equivalent of greens and cornbread," she laughed, her Memphis roots showing.
"You girls come back and try some," Amy called after us as we walked out.
"Don't worry," we replied at the same time. "We'll be back!"
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