What if I told you that you could get animal-style fries in Houston?
What if I told you that those famously messy, cheese-and-onion-slathered fries topped with a final heart-stopping glug of Thousand Island dressing weren't at a brand-new In-N-Out Burger, but at a chaat house in Little India?
And what if I told you that they're, in fact, better than the original animal-style fries at the very place that invented the dish?
Owner Inamullah Moghul -- who goes simply by "Inam" -- has been steadily introducing Pakistani-American dishes to the menu at Bismillah Cafe since at least 2007. The cafe was initially conceived of as only a basic chaat house, or casual restaurant where you can purchase small, snack-y items like dahi puri or samosas. But Moghul found more pleasure in redefining his parents' Indo-Pak food through an American lens.
These days, you'll still find excellent dahi puri and samosas on the menu -- Moghul doesn't give short shrift to the foundations of his chaat cafe -- but you'll also find pizza, sliders, hot wings and chicken sandwiches.
Moghul has a special spice blend that's been perfected over the years called "ten spice" for the number of aromatics that make up the secret mix. This curry is liberally applied to roast chicken for his ten spice pizzas. Hot wings are tossed in it. Tater tots are coated in it until they turn a deep ruddy hue, the color of warning.
The same spice blend is also dusted on top of the animal-style fries, but it's only one of the reasons they're such a vast improvement over the original. I've had (and enjoyed) more than a few paper boats of animal-style fries at In-N-Out Burger since the California chain began its slow Texas invasion two years ago in Dallas.
Bismillah Cafe's onions are grilled until nearly burnt, just as they should be for this dish, and the Thousand Island dressing is appropriately sweet and tangy. But where In-N-Out Burger's cheese gets rubbery and tough within a few minutes of sitting on the fries, the cheese at Bismillah remains gooey and creamy. The last sorry batch of animal-style fries I had at In-N-Out in Fort Worth were plastered with cheese that was tougher than Magic Shell.
Either way, there aren't any In-N-Out Burgers in Houston. But there is Bismillah Cafe. It's less of a drive than the Metroplex, and cheaper besides. And it's one of the restaurants you should be sure to check off your Little India bucket list, even if you couldn't care less about animal-style fries one way or another.