Punny Man

The phone calls commence at the Khyber North Indian Grill around 11 a.m. "What's on your marquee?" people ask expectantly, awaiting owner Mickey Kapoor's latest groaner of a pun. Since opening his nouvelle-Indian place this spring, Kapoor has livened the arid commercial landscape along Richmond at Kirby with a torrent of smart-ass bulletins wrought in the stick-on letters so beloved of modern merchants. Some messages are jokes of the conventional, self-contained sort: "TURBAN COWBOYS," read one side of Kapoor's sign during the rodeo; "JIMMY CARTER FOR BASEBALL COMMISSIONER," it suggested a few weeks back.

But Kapoor's true gift to Houston's urban-signage phenomenon is the cheeky (and tragicomically one-sided) dialogue that's sprung up between his marquee and the one fronting the Cafe Pappadeaux next door. "OUR FISH COME FROM THE BEST SCHOOLS," poor Pappadeaux's will boast, whereupon the Khyber will retort, "EVEN OUR SHRIMP HAVE PH.D.'S." "STUFF YOURSELF ON OUR FLOUNDER," the Pappadeaux's sign may indelicately urge; "NEVER GET STUFFED AND NEVER FLOUNDER," the Khyber missive promptly admonishes.

This "trump yours" conversation began innocently enough, when Kapoor -- who, like all gifted punsters, is smart, shameless and prone to feed on the material at hand -- decided to improve upon Pappadeaux's "GO ROCKETS" sign. "So dull and boring," tsk-tsks Kapoor, who responded, "GO ROCKETS, BUT PLEASE COME BACK." Next, Pappadeaux's invited patrons to "BRING IN YOUR SECRETARY AND TREAT HER LIKE ROYALTY." Kapoor's sign immediately deadpanned "BRING IN ROYALTY." "HAPPY HOUR 4-6 WITH CRAWFISH," advertised Pappadeaux's, leaving themselves wide open for Kapoor's pointed question: "CAN YOU BE HAPPY WITH A CRAWFISH?"

A subculture of marquee readers began driving by just to see Kapoor's latest sally. Consternation blossomed under Pappadeaux's tin roof. The Pappas family's managers are paid bonuses for clever marquees, which made Mickey Kapoor the Neighbor From Hell; it's hard to seem clever when your "ALLIGATOR CROSSING" elicits a comeback of "ALLIGATOR SOUP." The "BLACKENED TUNA COZUMEL" incident brought matters to a head. When Kapoor smirked back that "WE BLACKEN OUR FOOD ONLY BY ACCIDENT," one of Pappadeaux's managers paid a protest visit. Although Kapoor couldn't resist introducing himself as "the Marquee de Sade," an understanding developed. "We won't pick on their food or culinary talents," explains Kapoor, "but if they leave themselves open...."

They have, of course. Their Mother's Day come-on ("YOUR MOTHER WILL FLIP FOR OUR TUNA") inspired Kapoor to urge "CAUTION: YOUR MOTHER WILL FLIP NEXT DOOR." "That's putting us down," objected his neighbors, whereupon Kapoor substituted, "IF GHANDI'S MOTHER HAD COOKED LIKE THIS, HE MIGHT NEVER HAVE FASTED."

Uh-oh: now the Indian community was mad. Kapoor is nothing if not an equal-opportunity offender. With a punster's subversive soul, he is a politically incorrect animal trapped in politically correct times. The hot water he got into over signs at his former restaurants -- notably "IRAQNOPHOBIA" (at Bombay Grill) and "DINE SAFE, USE CONDIMENTS" (at India's) -- has grown hotter now that he's moved inside the politically sensitive confines of the Loop. He sees current events as fair game for the non-Pappas side of his double-faced sign, which means he's come under fire for such quips as "THE RAFTAFARIANS ARE COMING" and "OUR OJ DOESN'T SOUR." Even "LET OUR KARMA RUN OVER YOUR DOGMA" riled up certain animal lovers. (Last week, he actually replaced one of the rugs hanging on the Khyber's wall because some Inner Loopsters objected to its hunting scenes of "little animals getting stabbed.")

Not that he'll stay out of trouble. Like most punsters, he can't seem to help himself; even he will concede that he has occasionally pushed things too far. When Pappadeaux's implored "COME SEE OUR KING LOBSTER," Kapoor, who had a gay waiter in his employ, unwisely cracked, "COME SEE OUR QUEEN ALEX." Alex quit. Kapoor sounds genuinely regretful.

Is there any subject he wouldn't joke about? "Rwanda," he answers quickly. Well, a pun did come to mind, he admits, "but it came purely on the word level, not the emotional level."

So deep is the 44-year-old restaurateur's romance with words that when he says that "My restaurant is just a front for my signs," he sounds half-serious. He keeps a notebook brimming with new ideas and takes a ringmaster's delight in the small urban dramas his signs incite. Why, just two weeks ago, he rebutted the Pappadeaux's "NOW HIRING ALL POSITIONS" sign by sniping "NOW FIRING ALL POSITIONS." Result? "We had so many job applicants show up!" exults Kapoor. Then he cackles loud and long.

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