Fire-Breathing Burgers

"The vegetables aren't that good today; get the meat," chef Lashkari of Himalaya Restaurant tells me. The decor of the restaurant doesn't inspire much confidence, but the amiable and ample-bellied Pakistani chef has steered me right on several previous visits. I ask him what kind of meat I should get.

"Can you tolerate a lot of spice?" he asks me, looking at the handwritten menu hanging on the wall above his head.

"The spicier the better," I say, my interest piqued.


Himalaya Restaurant

6652 Southwest Freeway, 713-532-2837.

Hours: 11:30 a.m. to 11 p.m. Tuesdays through Thursdays; 11:30 a.m. to midnight Fridays and Saturdays.

Bun kebab: $2.75
Cheeseburger: $3.50
Hunter's plate: $10.50
Beef chapli: $6.50
Karahi gosht: $8.99
Saag paneer: $6.99

Hunter's beef is the house specialty, he points out, but the beef chapli is also very good. So I make up a story about getting lunch for somebody at the office and order both. He disappears into the kitchen, and I take a seat in the humble dining room.

The tables are stained plywood covered with slightly sticky clear plastic. The floors are saltillo tile, and on the back wall there's a large painting of a Mexican market scene and several smaller prints of chile peppers. A collection of black-and-white photos of Indian and Pakistani actresses hanging near the front window is the only tip-off that you might not be in a Tex-Mex restaurant.

The waitress delivers a plate with three small burger patties and some cucumber and onion slices. She puts a small bowl of green yogurt sauce on the side. As I chew my first bite of beef chapli, there's a cracking sound between my teeth. The crunchy stuff turns out to be pepper seeds, which is probably why my tongue starts to sting. Ginger adds to the burn, and then the exotic flavor of coriander seeds kicks in. Wow, what a burger.

Chapli means "slipper" in Pakistan. Chapli kebabs are popular on the Indian-Pakistani border. The squarish ground-meat patties are called slipper kebabs because they're supposed to resemble the soles of sandals. They're commonly made with ground lamb there, and with ground beef in Pakistani communities in the United States.

Served on a bun, this would be one of the most exotic burgers in the city, I muse as I dunk a chunk in yogurt sauce. Visions of McChapli franchises pass fleetingly through my imagination.

Hunter's beef is brisket that's been cured and salted, then roasted and chopped, the chef tells me. What comes to the table looks like a large pile of corned-beef hash decorated with sliced tomatoes. Closer examination reveals some chopped green chiles and fresh cilantro were mixed in after the meat was cooked. On the side, I get a toasted poor-boy roll and a bowl of orange sauce.

"No flatbread?" I ask Lashkari.

"You want flatbread, I'll give you flatbread," he says. But hunter's beef is usually eaten on a sandwich roll with lots of mustard sauce, he explains, pointing at the orange stuff. He keeps an eye on me as I begin assembling the sandwich, then steps in with further guidance when I start spearing onion slices: "This one takes tomatoes, no cucumber or onions."

Following his instructions, I build a tasty corned-beef-hash poor boy. The mustard tastes like it's been cut with mayonnaise and spiked with a very piquant masala. Unfortunately, the roll is stale. But the day is saved when the waitress brings me a big bubbly round of Himalaya's fresh-baked flatbread.

When the chef isn't looking, I make another corned beef, tomato and masala mustard sandwich, but this time I stick the meat and condiments inside a pocket I've made in the flatbread. The result is one of the best corned-beef-and-mustard experiences I've ever had.

I pack up the leftovers in a Styrofoam container and take them home for further experimentation.

The first time I visited Himalaya, my daughter and I had a spectacular chicken biryani, some goat masala and a bowl of saag paneer. She loved the rich rice dish, which contained lots of chicken and fruit; balked at the goat stew, which had a few bones in it; and expressed concern about the puddle of grease that formed in the middle of the mustard greens and cheese.

"It's not grease, it's melted butter," I reasoned with the concerned teenager. But her worries about the greasy appearance of the food probably would be echoed by lots of people who are trying to eat healthier. Himalaya's Pakistani cuisine appears to be quite high in fat. The take-out menu addresses this problem in a box labeled "special instructions." There are options you can check off: spicy, medium, mild and less oil. No doubt you can make the same request when ordering at the restaurant.

The vegetable dishes at Himalaya are uniformly excellent, but the chef dismissed them with a wave of the hand. "Next time, let me cook you some of my beef dishes," he said after I had paid the bill on that first visit.

"You never find beef in an Indian restaurant," he pointed out. "But Pakistanis do all kinds of great things with beef."

On my second visit, I tried to give him a chance. When I asked which beef dish he'd recommend, he suggested a version of karahi gosht made with beef instead of the customary mutton. It turned out to be a slow-cooked stew of falling-apart beef chunks cooked in a thick masala sauce. I tried it over rice, tucked in a flatbread pocket and all by itself, and it rocked on all counts.

Like many Pakistani-American restaurants, Himalaya takes advantage of the high quality and low cost of American beef by substituting it for the goat or mutton traditionally used in Pakistan, where beef is an expensive luxury.

Hungry for lunch, I threw one of the leftover beef chapli patties into a hot skillet on my new range. (My remodeled kitchen is almost finished.) For a bun, I used a fresh kaiser roll, sliced and toasted in the same pan. My homemade chapli burger was topped with cucumber slices and Dijon mustard. The chile-pepper afterburn from the meat patty kept my mouth warm for a good quarter-hour. But I quickly discovered that putting a chapli kebab on a bun was hardly a new idea.

"Sure, we put the chapli kebab on a hamburger bun. It's called bun kebab," chef Lashkari told me.

"I thought that was just the Pakistani name for an American hamburger," I confessed.

"No, we have American hamburgers and cheeseburgers, too," he said.

On my fourth visit to Himalaya, I picked up a cheeseburger and a bun kebab to go. The cheeseburger was a thin meat patty topped with a slice of American cheese and served on a standard white-bread bun with lettuce, tomato, onions and the distinctive hot masala-mustard sauce. While its diminutive size kept it from the first rank of Houston cheeseburgers, it was an extremely interesting variation.

The bun kebab featured a chapli kebab patty on a hamburger roll with onions, just a touch of tamarind sauce and some yogurt sauce. Freshly cooked, the zesty meat patty made an exceptional sandwich. I feel a little foolish having only now discovered this fabulous Pakistani burger, and I invite Houston bun-kebab experts to point me toward some other outstanding examples.

The bun kebab and the hunter's-beef poor boy were invented in Pakistan but inspired by Western-style sandwiches, chef Lashkari tells me over the phone.

Hunter's beef is a Pakistani imitation of Western corned beef made with slightly different salts and ingredients, he says. And a bun kebab is just the age-old Pakistani meat patty served on an American-style hamburger bun.

Some knowledgeable fans believe that Himalaya's biryani is the best in the city. The menu also includes such seldom-seen entrées as goat-meat kebab, roasted mutton and fish masala. You can visit the restaurant a half-dozen times without running out of fascinating dinner fare. But for a real change of pace, try a fiery Pakistani burger for lunch.

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