As we enter the new year, I'm trying to make good on a few resolutions starting on the very first day of 2013. And one of those is to get outside the Loop a bit more -- even though a great bounty of amazing restaurants have opened inside the Loop in the last 12 months -- and back to exploring the rest of Houston's rich food scene.
On last week's post rounding up all of our restaurant reviews from 2012, commenter kevin818 wrote: "I would like to see more reviews of restaurants along the Hillcroft strip."
To kevin818's point, it had been far too long since I spent an afternoon in Little India -- the subject of a feature I wrote on the Mahatma Gandhi District back in May 2011 (my God, how time flies...). So I took a few friends this past Sunday to visit some old favorites and get acquainted with some new ones.
10. Bombay Sweets
Dessert is always on your mind at Bombay Sweets because the place is foremost a candy store and the dining room is right next to the display case. But it's the $4.50 all-you-can-eat vegetarian buffet that's the main attraction. Don't miss the awesome chickpea masala and the eggplant stew called bengan bhurta. Other dishes rotate in and out of the lineup. But you can hardly go wrong with any of the featured items.
Shiv Sagar has an all-vegetarian, chaat-style menu that allows you to build a meal of smaller Indian dishes, and is very often my go-to Sunday brunch destination for a recuperative meal of dahi puri, spicy samosas and a thick, cumin-laced salt lassi. Sagar, its little sister, also offers chaat -- but there's so much more to the menu, including Indo-Chinese dishes, Mumbai-style street tood, Gujarati thalis and Punjabi treats. Sagar has everything from Hakka noodles and Kati rolls to bhel puri and mango lassis, and at the same low prices as its big sister.
8. Raja Sweets
It's hard to pass up the festive trays of Indian pastries on display, but the steam table on your right yields a bountiful bargain at Raja Sweets, one of the first Indian restaurants in the Mahatmah Gandhi District and still one of the most popular. As to what's underneath all the stainless-steel lids, and the sari-clad server will whisk them off, revealing chickpeas, curry, lentils and goat meat with your choice of rice or naan. There's an even lower price for this extra-spicy plate lunch if you skip the goat meat. Raja offers superb samosas and vegetable pakoras as well, and you don't want to pass up dessert, of course. Owner Sharan Gahunia and her family -- who started Raja Sweets in 1985 -- are known for making the best gulab jamun and Chenna Juli in town.
Unlike most places in Little India that are BYOB or completely alcohol-free, London Sizzler has a full bar and a festive, pub-like atmosphere. That's because owner (and nonresident Indian) Ajay Patel was born in Zambia and raised in England, and brought British-Indian food to Houston when he opened London Sizzler. Here you'll find more British-influenced Indian dishes like chicken tikka masala (CTM) served with ice-cold pints of Boddingtons. London Sizzler is a popular stop on the Greater Houston Convention and Visitors Bureau's Where the Chefs Eat tours for dishes such as goat biryani, jeera wings and fluffy naan, which are beloved by chefs like Chris Shepherd.
If you want a full sit-down Pakistani meal, head to Bismillah Restaurant. If you want a quick, counter-service meal of Pakistani snack food, head to Bismillah Chaat. You can't go wrong either way. The two restaurants are only separated by Indian bakery Hot Breads between them, and hitting all three is one of my favorite ways to spend an afternoon in the Mahatma Gandhi District. At the chaat house, you'll find traditional dishes like sev puri and chicken samosas mixed in with more updated fusion dishes reflective of younger Pakistani culture: lamb sliders, fries and tater tots covered with garlic mayonnaise and masala spices, peri peri-spiced chicken wings and Bismillah's best-seller: a "ten chicken sandwich" that features chicken breast coated in ten different spices, served on a ladi pav bun with lettuce, tomatoes, cucumbers and a yogurt-chutney sauce. (Bismillah also serves my second-favorite dahi puri in town.)
The southern Indian cuisine at Udipi is entirely meat-free, but that doesn't mean it's boring or won't fill you up. Offering everything from playful, lighthearted fare like creamy, sweet mango lassis and springy idlis to more substantial dishes like fragrant aloo gobi, thick palak paneer and navratan korma over tamarind rice, Udipi encourages you to experiment with vegetable-based dishes in an easygoing environment with reasonable prices. And although there's no booze on the menu, you can always BYOB here.
Himalaya Restaurant & Catering is a classic Hillcroft hole-in-the-wall where exotic meat dishes keep company with Pakistani cheeseburgers (and owner Kaiser Lashkari's desk in the middle of the dining room). Ask for reduced oil in the vegetable dishes if you don't like to see a puddle of ghee in your saag paneer. The affable Lashkari -- who attended medical school in Pakistan before getting his bachelor's and master's degrees at the University of Houston -- will gladly suggest which Indian and Pakistani dishes he thinks you should order, in case you can't make your mind up. Can't-miss dishes include the chicken hara masala, aloo tikka and absolutely anything with lamb.
3. Biryani Pot
This newcomer is outside the traditional confines of Little India, but that's simply a sign -- to me, at least -- that the district is continuing its pattern of growth. Biryani Pot's high-profile location on Westheimer will hopefully pull more people off the main thoroughfare and onto Hillcroft by way of its vibrant curries and colorfully named dishes like the Goat Chops of Heaven. (The name does not lie; this is the best goat I've had anywhere in Houston.) The Hyderabadi cuisine is never hurried here, and as a result you'll need to be patient. Most days, there's a long wait at the front door, adding to your need for patience -- but the food and cheerful, efficient service are absolutely worth it.
Nestled between sari shops and South Asian grocery stores on Hillcroft, this popular spot offers fresh and fiery-hot vegetarian fare in the tradition of South India. Shri Balaji Bhavan's inexpensive menu, sparkling tile floors and thumping Bombay pop draw a diverse crowd of Indian foodies. The popular Madras thali includes seven stainless-steel cups filled with an assortment of dishes flavored with tamarind, coconut and walloping peppers. Other favorites include the dal fry, dosas, handmade breads and dahi puri -- the best in Houston, in my personal opinion (which doesn't count for too much, since the little snacks can change drastically in their composition from restaurant to restaurant).
1. Hot Breads
Believe it or not, this is a fast-food franchise that started in Madras, India, in 1988. The idea was to bring Western-style baked goods to an Indian audience, but the bakery offerings eventually morphed into a European-Indian fusion style. Chicken tikka croissants and goat korma-stuffed puff pastries are popular here, as are the shortbread cookies and tea cakes -- although you'll be hard-pressed to meet the $10 credit card minimum even after filling up your cart with goodies, so inexpensive is it all. You can also get hot sandwiches and chaat to round out a simple but filling meal here. Hot Breads also does a swift trade in eggless bread for the Indian community and makes plenty of sugarless pastries, too. After opening 52 locations in India, the chain spread throughout the Middle East and went on to Europe. (There are two locations in Paris.) This is one of only three locations in the States and the fact that it's constantly busy attests to its fine products.
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