Indian & Pakistani Feasting
Don and I arrived on a Thursday evening at 6:30. We parked in the strip mall lot and counted about 5 other options for Indian food. That was no surprise since we were in the Houston area, known as the Mahatma Gandhi district. I was feeling sort of at home in the area, since I'd recently spent 5 hours shopping at a number of Sari Shops across the street... for an Indian wedding. I should have dressed up for dinner!
Once Kristi and Jim arrived we headed inside. I wanted to wander and study the decorated walls, but the cozy space filled up too quickly. I wanted to ask about the Latin American art on the back wall. I wanted to know if it was left over from the Columbian Restaurant that was once housed in the space. But I was too intimidated to wander and ask questions. Don and I had read a few reviews from diners who said the restaurant was unfriendly. I don't usually let whiney reviews sway me, but I also didn't want to risk ruining the evening with Kristi and Jim.
Wine and Menus
As soon as we were seated, a waiter arrived with menus, a corkscrew and plastic glasses. He'd seen our wine bottle and he was on top of it. It's nice going to a BYOB restaurant that doesn't charge a fee or make you stress over asking about policies.
The meun was packed with options. I noticed the Hunter's Beef Plate, that Kristi and I ordered last time. There was a Persian Kabob that sounded good. But the words, "Mild, Kid Friendly" made it sound like only wimps ordered that. There were lots of Bourdain approved dishes marked, with red thumbs. It seems we'd only looked for a moment before the waiter had returned to take our order. Oh dear. Are we being rushed?
We bought ourselves some decision time, by ordering veggie samosas. They arrived piping hot, with some sauces. Very yummy!
After a few bites of samosa, the chef and owner Kaiser Lashkari arrived to take our order. I'd recognized him (from TV) when we first walked in. He seemed terribly serious with his pen and pad, when he asked for my order. But I still hadn't decided. "You go first, Jim." I pleaded. I did not get reprimanded for being slow.
Then the food arrived and heavenly aromas hit our table. This photo poorly reveals our 4 entrees and 3 orders of nan bread. I had not planned on writing this up or I might have requested "hands off!" to get a better photo.
I took one more photo, but, hands were still grabbing. So I stopped snapping and grabbed for food myself.
My dish was the big one... a mountain of Chicken Biryani and Basmati rice! We also had Chicken Hara Masala, Dal Gosht with goat and Lamb Vindaloo. All were wonderful. The garlic nan and butter nan was amazing. Poor Kristi can't do cilantro, so she missed out on some of the bread.
Meeting the Owner
I asked the question Don often dreads. "Would you mind being in a photo?" "Sure!" Lashakri boomed. "Let's do a selfie!" We gathered around the "star" and Jim used his long arm to snap a pic of our group. It's a little blurry, but it captures the happy moment!
Sometimes it takes a trip or two to know the ropes. I'm ready for a third trip to Himalaya. I hear there's a pretty flavorful Indo-Pakistani Chicken Fried Steak that might need some taste testing!
Once again, I discovered the fun of International dining in Houston. No plane ticket needed! I can hop in my car, drive a few minutes and feel like I've taken a trip around the world.
And where do you eat?
This ornate building doesn't look like Texas. It holds the shop/grocery/cafeteria on the grounds of Houston's BAPS Shri Swaminarayan Mandir. or Hindu Temple. The dining part of the adventure came after a pretty an impressive and chilling tour of the temple.
Worst Day to Visit
On Friday, the temps were in the 30's with a chilling breeze and drab skies. The fountains weren't flowing, the larger trees were bare and scaffolding covered much of the exterior, which at least was a clue that work was being done to whiten up the 10 year old stone that showed signs of mold. Nevertheless, it was a great visit.
This was the only day that my friend Kristi and I could go and neither of us let the weather stop us. We met in the parking lot, bundled up and kept our fingers crossed for no rain. We wanted to tour the temple before lunch skies were gray and we'd heard they close to visitors when the marble gets wet and slippery.
Walking to the Temple
The wind (as seen in flag) moved us briskly towards the temple. We paused to take in this intricately carved set of arches. How odd to see the apartment complex on the other side of the golden gates. This whole complex of beautiful buildings, sits so oddly in the middle of a Stafford neighborhood, right outside of Houston.
Marble and Limestone
The entire structure is covered in intricately carved designs. Italian marble and limestone from Turkey were shipped to India, where craftsmen created 33,000 individual pieces before shipping to Houston where they were pieced together using no iron or steel. After viewing this amazing carved wall of images, Kristi and I turned right towards the women's area, for shoe storage. Cameras and shoes needed to be put away before climbing the marble stairs to the temple.
Inside the Mandir
This is what we discovered after climbing the steps. (postcards are available. I didn't sneak photos) The cold air blowing through the space made it seem like we were walking through a maze of pillars and domes carved in ice. Luckily we were quietly welcomed by Mr. Patel, a Mandir volunteer, since really didn't know where we were allowed to walk. He told us that 10 years ago when this temple was built, it was the very first traditional Mandir built in the North America. He shared some history and made us feel comfortable enough to ask some sort of silly questions. Then he guided us to sit in the center of the carpeted area (in the women's area) so we could experience a very brief ritual that would be happening shortly.
Before long the carpet was scattered with others, some sitting and some kneeling down, doing a variety of bowing gestures. A few men did a yoga-like move that looked rather like a push up. A few of the women began to gather near Kristi and me. I think they sensed our confusion because I saw a few give us welcoming smiles. In the next few minutes there was a swirl of peaceful activity. Bells were rung and the gates before us opened to reveal colorful carved statues. There were men in saffron robes and lighted sticks of some kind. A metal plate was carried around with a flaming center. We watched while men first, donated to the plate then waved their hands over the flame then towards their faces. Having grown up in a Catholic church it seemed a bit like the offering and communion combined and there are rules about who takes communion... But the woman carrying the flaming plate in our area seemed happy to show us how to move our hands over the flame in sort of a blessing. Now, I can't even remember if I took my gloves off, but I do remember that glorious moment of warmth. I'm not sure the full meaning of our bit of participation...but how could there be anything wrong with a shared moment of warmth!
Warming with Food!
An icy drizzle had picked up by the time we descended from the temple. By now our feet were numb, but not enough to keep from feeling our socks soaking up the wet puddles on the marble. When we reached our shoes, I whipped off my socks before putting on my shoes. We rushed through the drizzle toward the warm food shop...with my wet socks in my pocket. Here is Kristi, with a Styrofoam plate of steaming curry dishes. We were the first diners to take a seat in the eating corner of the store.
This vegetarian display of curry dishes and rice does not look appetizing in the photo. But it was amazingly good and cheap. ($7.99) We had to be patient, though. The aisles of the little store had a number of shoppers, who seemed to be regulars buying packages of sweets, vegetables, even soaps and candies. Our cashier was doing double duty and rushed over to get the small buffet ready between checking out customers. Then Mr. Patel, our kind guide from the Mandir entered in his wool cap and big smile. He made sure we got some "Indian donuts!" and "sweet cake" that tasted like sweet cornbread with cilantro.
Kristi was quite intrigued by the sweets that were available in the shop. She busily read labels and seemed excited about curious ingredients. Her enthusiasm made me think I needed to buy a whole box of Gulkand Sandwich. I'm not sure why I need a large container of these sandwich shaped treats. I guess I was a little intrigued by the peanut butter and jelly appearance...or is that salami and cheese? Anyway, I'm having one right now with my coffee as I write. They are filled with cashews, almond, locust bean gum, ricotta cheese, saffron and Gulkand...which has something to do with rose petals. They taste like European marzipan candies...which I'm afraid I don't care for. Oh well. Everything else was good about the dining adventure. I plan to return on a warm, spring day!
How to Decide?
There are over 100 Indian restaurants listed for Houston on the UrbanSpoon website. How do you pick? I could have just driven down Hillcroft in the Mahatma Gandhi district. Or I could have pressed my Indian friends or neighbors for more suggestions. But I never get a firm answer, since they all seem to prefer home cooking So we trusted our friends the Gergelys. They are Hungarian, but lived in India, where their sons were born.
Right Here in Sugar Land
There is nothing unusual about the name or the appearance of this restaurant on Williams Trace and Hwy 6. But this is the place the Gergleys have been returning to since they moved to the area about 14 years ago. Margit raves about the food.
2 bonus points for not having to leave Sugar Land for a change!
Not new to the blog!
This is not Margit's first time in the blog, so no bonus points for that. But 3 bonus points for Margit's enthusiasm, telling me about the different selections on the lunch buffet! Margit's husband, Ivan was most excited about the Egg Pullao (I think it is called), which is a rice dish with boiled eggs. That was the favorite dish made by the nanny who worked in their home in India. I thought the dish was pretty good, but I mostly liked the idea of imagining a nanny who cooked mouthwatering dishes! Margit said the nanny also prepared wonderful French dishes. Margit ended up teaching her to cook Hungarian food, as well. "She ended up cooking them better than me!"
2 Bonus points for a dish that's brings up good memories. That "nanny" must have been really good with the children ...or they would they would have called her the "cook" who watched the kids.
And a full table! We had a few new faces to the blog, so 2 bonus points for that! We had an added treat when Mate and Sarah were able to join us for our lunch ...or breakfast to them. They were recovering (and celebrating) after recently completing grueling exams ...the kind that make most of us never consider med school!
5 bonus points for enjoying good food with pleasant company! Our conversation went in many directions, but I loved most hearing the stories of India. Mate was too young to remember living in India, but I'll add 2 bonus points for the fact he was born there. Always searching for any little twist to make a dining adventure more authentic!!
The frothy Mango Lasi in the chilled mug, would have been enough for lunch by itself. But I had 2 heaping plates of food, as well! I loved the samosas and the curry dishes. I probably liked the Sag Paneer (spinach and cheese) best. I also liked having the naan bread served hot at the table. We even had garlic naan, which is a first for me! 1 bonus point there. And for dessert, I managed to find just enough room for Kheer (rice pudding) and 1 moist ball of Gulab Jumun...oozing with sweet!
5 Points for food at Cafe India!
A Shy People Encounter
There was a friendly feel about the cafe. Our server was gracious and chatty and even a fellow diner stepped in, offering to take our photo at one point. But our best moment was when we met the cook, Jaktar. When I asked our server if she could convince him to come out, she warned us that he was a bit shy. But when he emerged, he recognized the Gergelys. He's been chef as long as they've been coming. He was very humble when we praised his good cooking. He seemed flattered when I asked to get him in a picture. I'm afraid Jaktar got very serious just in time for the camera's click. We'll capture his smile next time! 5 bonus points for our shy chef!
TOTAL of 25 POINTS for CAFE INDIA!
Cafe India didn't rack up points for curious decor or music or costumes, like some restaurants. 25 points...all for good food and people!
The Dining Blog
This is a blog about Dining Adventures. Sometimes, I talk about food. Below, you can read how this started.
On July 4th 2011, I set a goal to try 50 culturally diverse restaurants in one year! (I knew that was possible, living in the Houston area) I spent the year pulling in friends and family to join me, on some unusual dining adventures. I met some curious people, tried some scary foods and explored places and cultures I never would have otherwise. Even though I met my goal, I learned too much to end my adventures in dining. I have continued blogging about memorable dining adventures of all kinds, near and far... and all the discoveries and funny things I've learned along the way!
Locations and types of dining adventures, are listed further down.