It is a Wednesday afternoon during lunch service at Raja Sweets on Hillcroft and a line winds in front of the brightly lit case of sweets in the middle of the restaurant. Customers are having their cafeteria-style trays filled with golden-colored butter chicken and soft green saag paneer, then taking their seats in the unassuming dining room. And they're ordering sweets from the case by the dozen.
"Gulab jamun is by far our best seller," says Sharan Gahunia. "Almond or plain." The colorfully attired, always smiling Gahunia is the daughter of Joginder "Yogi" and Resham Gahunia, who opened Raja Sweets in 1985 along what was then a decidedly non-Indian portion of Hillcroft. In the 25 years that Raja Sweets has been open, Yogi has passed away (in 2002), but not before leaving an incredible legacy in Houston.
"Yogi was a friend of mine," says Kaiser Lashkari, the genial owner of Himalaya, one of dozens of South Asian restaurants that have cropped up along Hillcroft in the last 25 years. "He was the founding father of Indian sweets in Houston. He opened the first sweets shop in Houston. He was very much a part of bringing Hillcroft onto the scene."
"It was little-bitty when he started," Lashkari laughs. And despite that space of only 1,500 square feet, it was selling Indian sweets made from scratch on the premises, a tradition that continues to this day.
Sharan Gahunia says that many of the big-name Indian restaurants in town get their sweets from Raja, including the popular, ricotta-like Chenna Juli treats, each with a cherry on top. "We made those first," she grins. "Now every sweet shop sells them."
It's difficult to imagine that the successful shop, which is crowded nearly every day of the week for lunch and dinner, was ever small — it doubled in size in 1990 — or that its owners, Yogi and his wife Resham, were ever disadvantaged in this thriving area. But the Gahunias were pioneers in every sense of the word, arriving in Houston with not much money and a family to feed more than 25 years ago.
Now their sweet shop is a full-service, fast-food-style Indian restaurant that feeds other families day in and day out, a restaurant which has been instrumental in transforming this stretch of Hillcroft into what it is today: the Mahatma Gandhi District, home to many of the city's Indian and Pakistani businesses.
Indians and Pakistanis alike have known for years that Hillcroft is the place to go in Houston for not only food, but saris, gold jewelry, the latest Bollywood movies or music imported directly from South Asia. But when the area was officially designated the Mahatma Gandhi district, it was clear the rest of the city had taken note.
"If you talk to longtime Houston Desi residents, they'll tell you that the establishment of the Hillcroft area as the 'Gandhi District' is a milestone," said Lynn Ghose Cabrera, co-founder along with Aditi Raghuram of Desi Living, a blog that covers social aspects of the city's vibrant South Asian community, and social chair of Houston's immense Network of Indian Professionals. "It's one signifier among many that as a community, we've come of age," she continued.
A gold-framed photograph of Yogi, draped lightly with floral garlands, looks down over the shop from above the sweets case at Raja. He has a gentle smile on his face, his eyes seeming to watch the patrons fondly.
After he died, Sharan says, she and her mother received an offer of $1.5 million to sell the restaurant, which they swiftly declined. "I will never close or sell it," Sharan says. "I grew up in it."
The Mahatma Gandhi District is a relatively new name for this piece of Hillcroft, which marks its borders with Highway 59 to the south and Westpark to the north. The three roads combine in such a way as to form a little triangle within the tangle of streets and strip malls, a triangle which is still called by its other names: "Little India" to Houstonians, or simply "Hillcroft" to the city's large Indian community.
This area has been able to thrive not only because of its centralized location within the city and its increasing visibility, but also because of the demographics of the Indian community itself. South Asian population numbers in Houston have mushroomed over the past ten years. In the 2000 census, Harris County reported nearly 36,000 Indians, with a median household income $11,000 over the average for the rest of the county: $53,000 per year. In Fort Bend County, the median household income was $83,000, with a population of nearly 13,000.
Although official 2010 Census data aren't yet available, a 2009 American Community Survey demographic estimate put the Harris County Indian population at 46,125 and the Fort Bend County Indian population at 25,104.