The Five Best Hidden Restaurant Gems in Hillcroft

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Two weeks ago, I highlighted some of my favorite relatively unknown restaurants in Chinatown for your eating pleasure. There are so many spots there, it was hard to narrow it down to just five, but before I revisit even more delicious and authentic hole-in-the-wall eateries on Bellaire Boulevard, I thought I'd detour and scope out some hidden favorites in the Hillcroft neighborhood, sometimes referred to as Sharpstown.

I've also heard the area referred to as the Mahatma Gandhi District or Little India due to the large Indian population there. As such, the neighborhood--whatever you want to call it--is rife with Indian and Pakistani restaurants.

When I approached local ethnic food guru Chris Frankel, formerly the beverage director of RDG + Bar Annie but currently eating his way across the United States, about checking out some lesser-known spots around Hillcroft, he presented me with a single criterion: They can't all be Indian places. In spite of its reputation as an Indian neighborhood, the strip centers up and down Hillcroft are full of other ethnic cuisines that don't get enough media attention for being cheap, unique and, most importantly, totally tasty.

Here are some of the best.

5. Darband ShishKabob Open since 1986, Darband claims to be the oldest Persian restaurant in Houston. Regardless of whether it's actually the oldest, it is one of the best. For just $6.95, you can get a hearty plate of ground beef kabobs with bread, grilled tomatoes and herbs. From what I've heard the prices have hardly changed since the place first opened, and the food has continually gotten better and better. Even more impressive than the kabobs is the lamb shank, marinated in turmeric and garlic, and so tender it falls off the bone with little prodding. Oh, and the whole lamb shank is only $8.95. Try finding that value inside the Loop.

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4. Bijan Persian Grill Like Darband, Bijan serves Iranian food--mostly kabobs--but the dishes here are a little more upscale and the menu a little more extensive. You'll find a number of yuppie-looking inner-Loopers dining at Bijan (yours truly included) in addition to customers who appear to be regulars, back for the "Bijan Special" for the umpteenth time. The Bijan Special is a combination of grilled beef and chicken kabob meat served with cranberry and almond rice, some grilled veggies and herbs. All meals at Bijan come with house-made flatbread that tastes like the best, doughiest pizza crust you've ever encountered. That comes out before the meal though, so be careful not to fill up on it. It's addictive.

3. Guatemala Restaurant Tucked into a small strip center (but isn't everything on Hillcroft?) next to another awesome food destination, Jerusalem Halal Meats, Guatemala Restaurant is a treat for people who want food from south of the border but are interested in trying something other than Tex-Mex. You might be surprised to find that Guatemalan food isn't inherently spicy like much Tex-Mex, but it is bursting with flavor. I can't personally speak to the authenticity of the Guatemalan food, but all you need do is ask someone at a table near you. The other people in the restaurant are almost all regulars who stop by for a taste of home. Try the chicken pepian, a traditional chicken dish in a mole-like gravy served with buttery rice and stewed vegetables.

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2. Bismillah Restaurant More people know about (and patronize) Bismillah Cafe than Bismillah Restaurant, and that's probably because the cafe menu includes a number of Pakistani-American fusion dishes like wings and pizza. The restaurant is all about tradition, though, and one of the best dishes is the Beef Nihari, a slow-cooked stew of tender beef in a sauce of spicy brown curry thickened with bone marrow. It's super rich, and you'll want to order extra paratha bread on the side to cut the heat a little. Tawa qeema--ground beef with onions, tomatoes and spices formed into a sort of cake--is another dish that really packs the heat, but if you're less inclined to crave the spicy stuff, stick to the kebabs or the Americanized items at Bismillah Cafe, a few doors down.

1. Hot Breads Baked goods and Indian food are a few of my favorite things. Combine them in the most perfect way possible, and you have Hot Breads, originally a fast food restaurant that got its start in India back in the '80s. Today, the shop produces a fusion of European, American and Indian favorites like the chicken tikka personal pizza, spicy goat keema panini or mango cake. Perhaps the item most indicative of the fusion happening at Hot Breads is the masala cookie. It's not entirely sweet, and the texture is reminiscent of short bread, but the flavor is unlike anything you've ever had in a cookie before. Each bite bursts with cinnamon, cardamom, cloves and ginger, alternately reminiscent of a masala dosa and spicy pumpkin pie filling.

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