Longform

Little India

Page 3 of 5

"Every Indian loves sweets. They want to literally have them every day," laughs Aku Patel. He recalled a conversation with his old friend Yogi: "He said, 'I'm gonna serve fresh sweets. Not pre-made sweets coming from New York or India or Pakistan. I'm gonna make them right here.' He was the first guy to actually make sweets in Houston."

"Considering they use sweets at temples, at birthdays, at parties, at festivals, at New Year," Sharan says, it wasn't a surprise that Raja Sweets took off the way it did. "Everything is based around sweets. Anything happy that happens. You have a kid, they give out sweets."

The other draw at Raja Sweets was the sheer amount of home-cooked North Indian food one could get for cheap. Patel laughs when he recalls how much food Yogi piled on the plates. "I used to tell him, 'Yogi, these portions are too big!' He said, 'No, I want them to be satisfied they ate as much as they could for $3.50."

Within three years after the Gahunias opened Raja Sweets, India Grocers had opened down the street, adding to a handful of existing grocers in the area. Like Raja, it was originally a small space until Yatin Patel moved and expanded it in 1994, four years after the Gahunias had expanded at their own original location. Also in 1994, the Gahunias saw another long-term neighbor move into the Hillcroft Park Center: Keemat Grocers. Like India Grocers and Patel Brothers, it was one of many signs that the neighborhood was rapidly becoming more than just a small assortment of South Asian restaurants. Hillcroft was growing quickly.

During this time, Sharan graduated from Sharpstown High School and the University of Houston, going straight to work for Continental Airlines in its customer-service department for 11 years. But she was still always present at Raja Sweets when her parents needed her — sometimes whether she liked it or not. It had evolved into a full-blown family business by the early 2000s, with every staff member somehow related to each other.

Two of her uncles became the chefs as Yogi added North Indian-style fast food to the menu a few years after opening. And Resham continued her insistence on everything being made fresh, on-site, every single day. She resisted dumbing down their recipes, refusing to add cream to dishes like the popular butter chicken, refusing to skimp on ingredients. They bought their spices during twice-yearly trips back to India and supplemented what they couldn't bring home with groceries purchased from their neighbors along Hillcroft.

And although the Gahunias were insistent upon keeping Raja Sweets a family-run operation, not every design goes according to plan.

Sharan's older sister was oxygen-deprived at birth, a condition that's left her permanently disabled, with the mind of a toddler, although she's often present at the restaurant with a sweet grin on her face. "She requires constant care," says Sharan.

Meanwhile, Sharan's brother has absolutely no interest in the family's restaurant lifestyle, to the extent that he distanced himself from the business, anglicizing his name from Raju to Roger. It was an unusual move in a community where the second generation typically works alongside and then takes over for their parents after retirement, whether they're keen on the family business or not. Until recently, he worked as an IT specialist at ExxonMobil before his job was outsourced.

Then, after fighting pancreatic cancer for years, Yogi died in 2002. It was a blow not only to the restaurant but to the Indian community. After 17 years, Yogi and Raja Sweets had become what Sharan calls "the compass, the magnetic north" of the Indian community in Houston. He was well known for his sweets, yes, but also for his benevolence: providing food and snacks for events at the India Culture Center or the South Asian Chamber of Commerce for free, his restaurant serving as a sort of living room for Hillcroft itself.

His generosity didn't end there — he often wrote $5,000 or $10,000 checks to other organizations that needed seed money. "The guy who started Masala Radio," recalls Sharan, "had a vision and an idea. He came to talk to my dad about it. He needed $10,000 to start and my dad wrote him a check and said, 'I believe in you.' Of course, he paid my dad back. But my dad did stuff like that all the time. Even with other restaurant owners. He always told them: 'You should do it, follow your dreams.'"
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