This is the first part of a two-part Chef Chat series. Part 2 will be published tomorrow.
Stepping into Doshi House Cafe for the first time, one definitely feels more community center and cafe than restaurant. Chairs of all shapes and sizes, some with armrests, some with colored cushions -- pieces you'd find in an estate sale -- make up the eclectic furniture in this warmly welcoming space, which is housed in the Third Ward.
"Are you a journalist?" an older African-American man, who had been quietly reading the newspaper, asked after he saw me taking photos of Doshi House's owner, Deepak Doshi. "Thank you for letting people know about this place. He [Doshi] does so much for this community. It's a blessing, and we want him to be able to continue to do what he's doing."
I had one of my most interesting chats ever when I sat down with Doshi at his charming coffee-shop-cum-community-center-cum-vegetarian-restaurant. He grew up in Houston, and, after school, entered the corporate world, where he held a job with a six-figure income. At age 28 he left all that behind and threw his savings into opening Doshi House, where he serves coffee made with Greenway Coffee roasted beans, Mill King Dairy milk, vegetarian sandwiches and vegetarian dinners for $6.95.
If, like me, you think that there is no way Doshi can survive and make a living selling dinners at such inexpensive prices, he'll tell you he prices them that way because that's all the people in his community can afford. He also offers free wi-fi. On his walls are rotating exhibitions of local artists' work, and he often hosts live music and poetry readings. I left the restaurant feeling uplifted, happy to have met this wonderful person who had realized a life ambition with Doshi House: The need to give back to the community.
EOW: You said that you were born in Houston...
DD: Yes. Born in southwest Houston, in Alief, and raised in Los Angeles -- Northridge, Reseda. I was there for about ten years, and then we moved back to Houston. I've been in Houston since I was 12; now I'm 31, so, long time.
EOW: When you moved back, where did you live?
DD: Southwest Houston. Alief.
EOW: Is there a large Indian community there?
DD: Huge. Well, back in in the day, it was even more diverse than it is now. That's where all my mom's side of the family was. Sugar Land didn't really exist back in '95 -- I mean it did, but it was Alief.
EOW: Was that before the Little India area on Hilcroft?
DD: That's been there forever. That's probably been there ever since I've been in Houston. I think it's really gained the title after Bellaire Boulevard became the "new Chinatown," so they dedicated that area to be called "Little India."
EOW: For people who don't know the area, what is the delineation? Where is "Little India," exactly?
DD: It's actually pretty small. If you exit 59 South, you exit Hilcroft, you make a right, and that whole strip in between 59 and Westpark Tollway is Little India.
EOW: Are there places that you go?
DD: Yeah! Shiv Sagar is a restaurant/cafe I go to often. It's more of a casual cafe, but they've got all sorts of street Indian foods, dosas, South Indian food. It's awesome. It's always packed. It's all vegetarian, but it's really good. They have such a huge selection, so you go in there kind of hungry and you'll definitely leave very full.
EOW: Tell me about your vegetarianism. Did you grow up vegetarian?
DD: Yes. So born into a vegetarian family, but my parents are pretty liberal. I'm first-generation, so my parents were like, "We're in the U.S. now, and it's kind of difficult in the U.S., so if you need to eat meat, you can." But I was at a certain point in my life, so I was like, "If I don't need it, why start now?"
EOW: Vegetarian is different than vegan, though, right?
DD: Absolutely. The difference between vegetarian and vegan is that vegans would not use any animal by-product, so no cheese, no butter, no milk, even sometimes honey. Anything that doesn't come from an animal or a living creature is considered vegan.
EOW: So do you have to use more processed food?
DD: So that's the thing. It's tricky, because a lot of times there are a lot of processed foods, which doesn't make it any healthier. And that's kind of what we do here -- we try to experiment with things that are more wholesome and real. For example our milk, for almond milk that we make here, how can we enrich it? We add macadamia nuts, because it has more natural fats. Our "not-so-butter-chicken" -- with butter chicken, the essential part of the meal is the creamy sauce. Traditionally it would be chicken marinated in yogurt and butter and sautéed. But we aren't using any of those ingredients, and we still get a nice creamy sauce because we use natural starches for it, like cashews.
EOW: Are you using gluten to substitute the chicken, then?
DD: Yes, it's a soy, wheat and shiitake mushroom protein. There's a little bit of gluten in there, but they also use shiitake mushroom, so the texture is chewier, meatier. It's actually a Thai product, and it's non-GMO, which is awesome. It's a religiously vegan product called Veggie Farm. Very few people know where it's at. We get it straight from the distributor. There's only one other place where you can buy it that I know of; it's called San San Tofu -- they sell it in the freezer section.
EOW: So you're vegetarian, not vegan.
DD: But recently I try really hard to live a vegan diet.
EOW: But why? Is it religious?
DD: No, it's not religious. It's mostly for health reasons. For personal reasons, I've seen the impact it's had on my health. Let me tell you: Growing up, my mom had asthma. I had asthma. I used to have a very clogged nose, really stuffy all the time, couldn't breath through both my nostrils. I thought maybe I was born this way, maybe I had a deviated septum. I was like that for almost 23 years of my life -- as long as I knew.
The thing is, I moved to Dubai, and most Arabic food doesn't have cheese or dairy in it, so my consumption of dairy and cheese dropped off. And all of a sudden, I could breathe, and I thought maybe it was the weather or the pollution. Well, I came back and went to my nephew's birthday party, and they had pizza and chips and nachos, and I was like, "All right, cool." I went for it -- and then my mouth started swelling up, and my gums turned black.
EOW: Right away?
DD: In a matter of like, five minutes. But this was two years after not eating super-highly processed cheeses and Velveetas, and the crap that we put on everyday foods. I hadn't eaten that for so long, and I have some doctors in my family, but they were like, "I've never seen a black mouth before." So I said, "Man, I don't know what it is," and I kind of freaked out. I'm not vegan, I'm vegetarian, so I'll eat cheese on occasion. But I began to notice that if I drink milk, I'll clog up just like that, and I can't breathe.
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EOW: Are you allergic to dairy, then?
DD: That's the tricky part. I can drink certain types of milk that's still cow's milk. But certain companies put antibiotics, hormones, in their product, and I think those are the things that my body reacts to. So when the dairy's not pure, my body will react right away.
EOW: So you can drink the organic stuff, and you're okay?
DD: Usually if it's non-homogenized, no hormones, no antibiotics, I could generally consume it. It's crazy. I've become really sensitive to processed foods. My body can tell pretty quickly that it's not what my body needs. So, I just listen. Come back tomorrow for Part 2 of our chat with Deepak Doshi .