Check out more photos from the inside of the warm and welcoming Bombay Pizza in our slideshow.
Bombay Pizza possesses the warm glow of a beacon in the evenings, the Edison bulbs that hang in its windows illuminating one of the few downtown restaurants along Main Street that have thrived over the years. Inside, you'll find a healthy crowd both day and night, the latter of which is depressingly rare — especially considering that neighboring restaurants such as Convey, ERA, Samba Grille, The Strip House and Korma Sutra have all closed within the last year.
Nearby, Ziggy's Good Food owner Kevin Strickland says he's experienced a 45 percent decline in sales over the last 12 months — part of which he blames on light-rail construction — while restaurants like The Capitol and Guadalajara Del Centro have been sadly quiet the last few times I've dropped in.
That's not to say all downtown restaurants are struggling: Grocery store giant Phoenicia and its adjoining eatery, MKT Bar, are thriving, and popular West Houston restaurant The Burger Guys is moving into the old Korma Sutra space later this fall. And then there's Bombay Pizza, which struck a chord with Houstonians, long accustomed to living in a melting pot, with its Indian-Italian fusion cuisine from the moment it opened in December 2009.
I don't know exactly what Bombay Pizza's secret to success is, but I have a pretty good idea. And it starts with the food, which hits four important points for the downtown demographic, particularly by day: It's inexpensive, accessible, convenient and delicious. If you've never tried saag paneer on a pizza, you've quite frankly been missing out.
Never in my life would I have thought to top thin-crust pizza with tandoori chicken, crab meat, artichoke hearts and provolone (toppings on the Gateway to India, one of Bombay's top-selling pizzas). Nor would I have thought a pizza strewn with strawberries, roasted pine nuts, Gouda and balsamic vinegar would sell. There are reasons that I don't run a successful restaurant and that the Patel family does.
Sonali Patel and her son, Viral, are the masterminds behind such pizzas as the "Sonu's Rita," a vegetarian masterpiece incorporating paneer and Bombay's outstanding housemade cilantro-mint chutney into an otherwise standard margherita pizza with basil, mozzarella and tomatoes. One of their newer pizzas, The Sergio, takes the Italian-Indian blend one step further by tossing Tex-Mex into the mix, a layer of sour cream, refried beans and avocado underneath Indian-spiced skirt steak — all of it topped with cilantro. And somehow, like all of the other pizzas, it works.
Don't want to commit to an entire pizza topping? Bombay also lets you do half-and-half pizzas in its medium and large sizes for no extra charge. (My personal favorite is half saag paneer and half Gateway to India.) And at lunch, there's always a regular slice of the day and a vegetarian slice of the day — each for less than $2.
The Patels offer other items, too, though — items which are critical to drawing in patrons who may not want Indian pizza every day of the week. There are straightforward Indian dishes like portable kati rolls (think of burritos made with naan bread and stuffed with chutney and meat) or slider-style veggie masala burgers called vada pav, made with potatoes flavored by fragrant mustard seeds and golden yellow turmeric powder. And there are also very straightforward Italian dishes: classic lasagna, chicken parm and plain old pepperoni pizza. There's even some seriously basic fare like tomato-basil soup and an ahi tuna-topped salad with sesame ginger dressing. And most of it is quite inexpensive.
A single kati roll with chicken is only $4.50 and is stuffed with more than enough creamy chutney and thick slices of meat to fill a person's belly for a quick lunch, and I often see more of these little foil-wrapped meals going out the door than pizzas during the day. Two fluffy "veggie masala" sliders (the aforementioned vada pav) come with an ample amount of delicious sweet potato fries for only $6 total. It's simple, easy and tasty food that reminds me of the colorful Indian food carts I saw on every corner in New York City this past spring.
If Houston had itself a downtown that didn't possess archaic laws restricting food carts on its streets, perhaps we'd have more restaurants at surface level. Increased foot traffic on the streets would mean an easier time for street-level restaurants to stay in business, whereas current regulations mean that most of the restaurants that thrive in downtown do so subterranean-style: in the tunnels.
What's left at night when the besuited businessmen and women leave for their suburbs and the tunnels close? Steakhouses catering to overnight business travelers, hotel restaurants and places such as The Flying Saucer that offer an established brand and plenty of booze. More intriguing restaurants are hard to come by within the central business district, which is what makes Bombay Pizza's success story so wonderfully surprising.
Bombay Pizza doesn't just remind me of New York City in its food offerings, however. On a recent cool evening, I was pleased to find myself sitting on Bombay's pleasant sidewalk patio surrounded by downtown pedestrians walking dogs, heading into the CVS across the street to shop or waiting for the train at the Metro station that sits directly in front of the restaurant on Main Street. A colorful parade of characters traipsed in and out of the bodega on the corner, while a few people occasionally darkened the door of the Holy Cross chapel next door.
Back inside the restaurant, the sole delivery man was running himself ragged on a bicycle, zipping in and out for one load of pizza deliveries after another. My sole issue with Bombay Pizza is that its thin, crispy crust doesn't hold up well to delivery or takeout, but the volume of his deliveries that Tuesday night would seem to render my opinion moot. A few couples cozied up to one another in booths toward the back, while some young men caught up over beers from Bombay's surprisingly excellent selection (which includes everything from Kingfisher to Celis White to local brews like Southern Star's Pine Belt Pale, which is perfect paired with Indian food).
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On this particular stretch of Main Street, the light rail has done its job effectively: Businesses such as Bombay Pizza and the Payless shoe store next door are thriving in the wake of all the pedestrian traffic, while people have made their homes in the lofts and fancy apartments high above the street. Colorful light installations flashed disco colors from their perch above the fountains that occupy part of Main between McKinney and Lamar, while the fountains themselves danced each time a train rattled by on the line.
For that evening, at least, downtown Houston felt vibrant and alive. It was a thrilling scene to someone who grew up knowing downtown as a ghostland by night — the kind of place where a bomb could go off past 6 p.m. without harming a soul. It's going to be an uphill climb in such a spread-out metropolis as Houston, but I still think that serious urban density can happen here and that downtown can be the beating heart of the city that it was when Houston was first founded.
Restaurants such as Bombay Pizza are essential to that kind of growth. We need more spots like this that are comfortable, reliable and inexpensive yet also as unique as Houston itself; that will draw in people from all over the city; and that are willing to tough out the heat, the construction and the waning crowds in the evenings. Let's hope Bombay Pizza is an exciting glimpse of what's to come.