I look at my watch, and it’s 6 PM in Houston. It had cooled down a bit from earlier when it was 95 degrees, but it is still muggy and hot. My glasses glided down the sweat of my nose as I pushed it back up with my finger. Into my ears, I popped in my Apple ear pods, pressed shuffle play on Radiohead’s “In Rainbows” album. “Weird Fishes” started playing as I started my walk past a Denny’s on Hillcroft Boulevard. Around me are the familiar franchises– a Wendy’s, a Starbucks, and a Chase bank. I crossed the underpass of US Highway 59. On the other side of the highway, in between the median, there is a sign that says “Mahatma Gandhi District.”
This area is also called “Little India” or just simply “Hillcroft.” The district is along Hillcroft Avenue, bordered by Highway 59 to the south and the Westpark Tollway to the north.
In 1983 Rupa Vyas, owner of an Indian grocery store Jay Stores, moved the store from Rice Village to the Hillcroft area. Soon after, more Indian American businesses opened up, then Pakistani, Iranian, and Afghani businesses moved to the area as well. Smack dab in the middle of all these south Asian and Middle Eastern stores, there is even a Sonic Drive-In.
Continuing on my walk north, the last shopping center before “Hillcroft” officially ends, is the Westcroft shopping center. If there is one consecutive row of businesses that represents the cultural diversity of Houston, it may well be this row of mom and pop shops–Halal Wok Chinese Cuisine, Darband’s Shish Kabob, Kwality Ice Cream, Meera Jewelers, India Mart, and Afghan Restaurant Express.
For me, what is notably missing is Super Vanak Groceries that used to be here but has since closed. This was a small Iranian grocery store– it was actually more the size of a convenience store with one cashier. I remembered that cashier, he was a Hispanic man who spoke better Farsi than me.
I strolled into Darband because I was craving some kabob. Darband was the very first Iranian restaurant that opened up in Houston back in 1986. It is a family owned business opened by an Iranian immigrant, Farsheed “Fred” Parchini. Since I moved to Houston a decade to go, I have eaten here countless times, and that familiar kabob house smell swirls through your nose everytime you walk in.
For many Houstonians, stepping into Darband may not look like any restaurant you have seen–unless of course, you happen to frequent kabob houses in Iranian bazaars. Walking into Darband is like being transported to a kabob house in one of the bazaars. In the middle, there is a ten-feet in diameter, seven feet high, 3 tier pond water fountain. This is something you would expect to find in someone’s garden, not smack dab in the middle of a restaurant surrounded by dining tables and chairs. Nonetheless, the fountain is a big part of its charm.
A kid, maybe around 8 or 9 years old, makes a wish as he throws a penny into the pond while I walk by. “Come on Andy, your food is going to get cold,” says a man in his late 30’s with a blonde goatee and plaid button-up shirt, presumably being the boy’s father. To his right was a Hispanic family, a father, mother, and two little daughters speaking Spanish while eating kabobs. To his left, a young Iranian couple, speaking in Farsi, were negotiating what movie to watch on Netflix later that night.
I walked up to the register, and I ordered the number six–Chelo Kabob and a Diet Coke. After I paid $10 and some change, I found an empty table adjacent to the fountain pond. Overhead, the Iranian American pop singer, Omid, is playing on the speakers.
Looking on the walls, there are pictures of Iranian architecture. As I wait for my food, staring at these pictures takes me back to my childhood in Iran. There is the picture of Azadi Tower in Tehran–a 148-foot architectural tower that is entirely clad in cut marble. It was commissioned by Mohammad Reza Pahlavi, the last Shah of Iran, to mark the 2,500th year of the Imperial State of Iran back in 1972. Azadi means “freedom” in Farsi. In 1979 protestors marched around Azadi Tower in defiance of the Shah for freedom, only to replace him with Ayatollah Khomeini–a much more oppressive regime. I chuckle to myself of the irony.
Next to the Azadi picture is the picture of Si-O-Se-Pol bridge in the city of Isfahan. This famous bridge was built around 1599 consisting of two superimposed rows of 33 stone arches. There is a larger base plank under the bridge supporting one of the oldest Iranian tea houses, under which the Zayanderud river flows. It makes me think of the time my father, brother and I sat in that tea house sipping hot tea while the stone canals under our feet had the river running through it.
“Order 171,” said the Hispanic line cook. I looked at my ticket and saw I was 171. I walked up, grabbed the plate that was filled with steaming white rice, ground beef kabob topped with a sprinkle of sumac spices, grilled tomatoes, and a side of sabzee (typically fresh herbs of basil, parsley, and mint).
You see food is not just for nourishment or for pleasure to our palette, it is also a cultural affair. Food represents a social phenomenon as people gather around to unite with each other. Very few things can make us as sentimental as the meals we eat. The ingredients in our foods represent the landscape and environment that shaped us.
Anthony Bourdain understood all of this. He realized how powerful food connects us all. He didn’t want to just understand the food from other cultures, but he tried to learn the culture that surrounded our meals–the people, the scenery, and their values. By showing us his genuine curiosity and openness to new experiences, he helped us feel more connected with the world. To Bourdain, food was merely an entry point to explore other cultures. And through watching his explorations, we found our lives more joyous and more meaningful. The world is mourning the loss of Bourdain, but the spirit that he emboldened continues on in places like Houston’s Hillcroft Boulevard.