I rarely order the same dish twice when reviewing restaurants. But I've recently found myself utterly enraptured by the dahi puri at Sweet n Namkin, to the point where I've now ordered them three times and am currently planning my fourth visit back for more.
There is no other sensation quite like eating dahi puri. It's a multisensory extravaganza of warm and cold, crunchy and soft, sweet and spicy, thick and runny, all in one thrilling bite. Each little puff of puri is as delicately constructed as a bird's nest, containing unknown treasures hidden inside: There is no strictly standard recipe for the snacks. At Sweet n Namkin, the dahi puri come filled with spiced chickpeas, thinly tart yogurt and two kinds of chutney: one dark and sweet, the other minty and spicy. You take the entire puri into your mouth in one bite and enjoy the shattering explosion of flavors and textures and temperatures across your tongue.
Because the dahi puri at Sweet n Namkin cost only $3.99 for a plate of eight, it's an activity that can be enjoyed alone on the cheap or with others — as it really should be eaten — as an appetizer for the dinner ordered from Salaam Namaste, right next door.
Salaam Namaste and Sweet n Namkin are side-by-side restaurants co-owned by three brothers: "Two real and one cousin," as Sweet n Namkin's gregarious manager, Amy, puts it. The two restaurants are connected by an internal door like a hotel suite. But you can enter from either front door and order from either side, regardless of which dining room you end up in. And regardless of where you sit, prepare to stuff yourself silly with some of the city's finest Desi food.
It was this dual aspect that first attracted me to the restaurants: both Indian and Pakistani at once, each restaurant entirely different from the other except for an affinity for serving up delicious Desi dishes from their separate kitchens. My friend Dr. Ricky had described Sweet n Namkin and Salaam Namaste as polar opposites of one another, despite their shared ownership. One side, he said, was all sweetness and light: bright colors and 100 percent vegetarian chaat and sweets presided over by a gregarious woman who tries to feed you in the same manner as a loving, clucking mother would. And on the other side, dark colors and man things: meat dish after meat dish, cricket bats lined up behind the counter, snooker and billiard tables in the back and Pakistani cricket matches on the many televisions.
On my first visit to the two restaurants, it was this side that we ordered from first. I quickly noticed, as Dr. Ricky had intimated, that this was definitely a masculine domain. My female friends and I were the only women in the place. Despite this, the gentlemen behind the counter were accommodating, helpful and friendly, guiding us on how to order and inviting us to sit on whichever side of the restaurant we preferred. We ended up on the more "feminine" side — Sweet n Namkin — only because the musky smell of the nag champa incense was a bit too strong at Salaam Namaste.
One of the other things that brought me to this section of West Bellfort was the promise of the best naan bread in the city. As several red baskets of steaming hot, slightly oil-sheened naan hit the table, eyes widened and a veritable feeding frenzy ensued. This was not the puny, withered naan seen sitting under heat lamps on sad Indian buffets: Salaam Namaste's naan is downy and thick, with just a hint of slick salt on the tongue. We used it in favor of any utensils that night, scooping up saffron-hued chicken keema and mossy green palak goat. It was used to grab up chunks of bright orange tawa chicken and delicate bites of fish biryani, each mouthful better than the last.
As I looked around the table, friends passing jewel-toned dishes to each other and eating with abandon, I was reminded of a passage in a Patricia Highsmith novel wherein the female protagonist is toying with the concept that someday, every normal activity will unknowingly be your last before you die. What will be the last song you heard, the last book you read, the last meal you ate? If this feast from Salaam Namaste was my unknowing last meal before I perished, I would die quite happy._____________________
Chaat houses are finally becoming more popular in Houston as Americans' concept of Indian and Pakistani food expands from simply saag paneer, chicken tikka masala and various curries. Sweet n Namkin is a classic example of a chaat house, or a restaurant that one stops into for snacks and sweets while catching up with friends.