I often describe Houston as an attitude-free Manhattan that has been stepped on by a big giant cowboy boot, spurs and all, spreading its ruptured inner oiled guts randomly and outwardly to create unpredictable, scattered cultural pockets.
Although I think that almost everything is about 20-ish minutes away, there seems to be a funny inner and outer Loop divide that shames commingling between the metros and suburbanites. City folk believe in urban-centric self-sufficiency while suburbia opts to reject the perceived wicked sinfulness of the eccentric inner Loopers.
I love them both. If that makes me unpopular with my inner circle, so be it. I’m out.
Diversity rocks. When it comes to food, diversity adds a skip in my step, a song in my heart and heavenly exotic stuff in my fridge and pantry. Which incidentally, leads to overeating.
Worthy of a choreographed “bend and snap,” having access to international markets, restaurants and shopping is a luxury and privilege never to be taken for granted. Often, we only take advantage of a city’s full offerings when on vacation, failing to explore our own.
I usually frequent these markets, however, I am also guilty of falling into routine behaviors. So I decided it was time to explore.
In a past life, I must have been Indian. Perhaps a result of my ethnically ambiguous complexion, I have slowly developed an affinity for the culture.
Rathna Kumar, Houston’s premier classical Indian danseuse, teacher and choreographer, introduced me to the elegance and narrative aspect of the hand movements. I fell hypnotically in lust with the primal naughty beats of Bollywood through SYTYCD’s Katee and Joshua’s routine. Back in January, I was giddied at the opportunity to dress in traditional costume for the HYPA Gala and threw myself into a shopping frenzy at Roop Sari Palace on Hillcroft and Harwin.
It’s time to return.
We meet at a designated parking lot at 1000 hours. Armed with a camera, a notebook and a growling stomach, it was time to get started, whip out the credit card and pack on the calories.
Lesson learned: None of the markets are open until 11 am.
“It’s Indian time,” Vipul tells me. “Like most social events, you arrive about one hour later than invited. It’s the thing to do.”
We get in the car and drive up Hillcroft for signs of life. Other than traffic, a few pedestrians and pooping pigeons, nothing remarkable is going on. Except one glimmer of foodie light: A bakery.
Hot Breads Bakers & Confectioners
Initially met with slight reservations — a guy with a notebook and a camera is usually trouble — I'm soon warmly welcomed when everyone realizes I'm hungry and ready to eat. Vegan good eats are plentiful at Hot Breads Bakers and Confectioners on Hillcroft.
A family owned bakery since 2002, carb heaven is found in the delicate commingling of French pastries and Indian flavors. Vipul introduces me to Shelina, a lovely lady that helps me navigate through their specialties, best sellers and unique product offerings.
Their puff pastry uses margarine in lieu of traditional butter, making their veggie filled croissants and puffs my new frenemy. I choose the aloo spinach puff and a guava drink to complete my breakfast.
The pastry is sweet, warm and flaky. The spinach and potato filling is well balanced with notes of cumin, turmeric and a slap of heat. While I pace myself sipping on guava juice, Vipul explains: “A lot of these stores have been owned by the same families for a long time. Old stores were renovated while some were torn and rebuilt.”
You can sense the familial history here. Everyone seems to know each other and although I should care more, I am more concerned with avoiding developing an addiction to this place.
While sharing childhood stories of travel, moving and cultural assimilation, time goes by and the streets begin to awaken. I grab a loaf of masala bread, pista pistachio cookies and coconut cookies and we go on our merry way.
A visit to a nearby grocery store is shortened by an encounter with a territorial store representative. Apparently, I'm stealing his business secrets by taking a picture of what seemed to be a huge cucumber on steroids.
Any possible dialogue proves unsuccessful. He proceeds to record my license plate while having the nerve to “ask and thank me” for my business.
Obviously, this guy has never heard of CultureMap.
I laugh it off but Vipul is agitated. A cultural experience is not complete without someone's feathers being ruffled.
We find much friendlier attitudes and welcoming, smiley faces at India Grocers on the Corner of 59 and Hillcroft, not to mention a spotless store that's meticulously organized. We are there for a few minutes and are offered help immediately by a lovely lady wearing a stunning saari.
“I don’t know what I am looking for,” I explain, “but I definitely know I will find it here.” She chuckles.
While Indiana Jones-ing through the shelves, Vipul tells me he had worked here as a teenager. “I remember hating the owner’s militant management style. I had to shelve things using a ruler!”
I appreciate the owner's OCD as I uncover some awesome foodie finds, filling up my basket easily.
“Twenty-two years in the business,” Yatin Patel, the owner, explains. “I have a very diverse clientele and 20 percent are not from Indian or Pakistani decent.”
I can hardly listen. I am on a quest.
Perusing through India Grocers, I find myself in a shopping trance reading through the labels. Dals, spices, canned goods, frozen stuff, alien veggies and cool gifts capture my attention. I notice a couple of past-due expiration dates which prompts me to check everything I purchase. All is good and current. Happens to the best of us.
My precious finds? An assortment of chutneys including coriander, masti, pickled dates, curry leaves, dosa batter, a hot, spicy and smokey punjabi party mix and spiced millet crisps.
It is now noon and two hours after our last meal. Well, two hours since we started our last meal. But who's counting?
Time for another.
Bhojan Vegetarian Restaurant
A mostly vegan buffet, Bhojan's decor consists of light and delicious colorful textiles flowing from the walls and ceiling. Oranges, reds, golds and turquoise make me wonder if my earth tone outfit feels inadequate.
“This guy does amazing weddings,” Vipul tells me.
The Gujurati-style food — Gujarat is a state in India on the west northern coast — is varied.
I follow Vipul’s example and begin to assemble the traditional thali: Smallish stainless steel bowls around a large stainless steal platter. I find carrot halwa, a cauliflower stew, fansi dhokli (spiced french beans with dumplings), undhiyu (vegetable casserole) and perfectly granulated aromatic basmati rice.
The restaurant is quiet with a few couples scattered throughout.
The food is well balanced: Not too spicy with a sensible combination of sweet, spicy and savory dishes. We are offered a warm selection of chapatis (flat breads), both sweet and savory.
For Vipul, eating at Bhojan seems to spark thoughts of his upbringing. “I wish there was a forum for contemporary Indian artists to get support,” he says.
Having struggled to find his own artistic voice in a community that values tradition, Vipul shares with me plans to create such a resource in the area.
I consider getting seconds but feel I have reached my food threshold. Time to call it a day and siesta.
During my drive home, I consider the many areas of town that need to be explored. Unassuming restaurant fronts and old strip malls hold some very special places.
I dig Houston.