"What are the odds of running into a Serbo-Croatian-speaking Afghani at a Persian restaurant in an Indian neighborhood?" I joke with my tablemates. I'm about to begin my "wonders of Hillcroft" speech when I'm interrupted by Loreta's baklava."
-Robb Walsh, Baklava Bravissimo, Houston Press April 1, 2004
Indeed -- the "wonders of Hillcroft." The restaurants on Hillcroft are the most concentrated mix of cultures in Houston or, for that matter, in Texas. Within a space of a few miles, there are restaurants that represent the food of at least 20 countries.
To experience this exotic world, I have begun a project of visiting restaurants on Hillcroft that I pick at random. Yesterday, I randomly picked a restaurant on Hillcroft near Harwin called "Halal Wok" - expecting some bizzarre Muslim/Chinese fusion. The problem was that, at lunchtime on Saturday, Halal Wok had no customers. I noticed that the restaurant next door had a line that ran outside the door. I decided against randomness in favor of my default rule: pick the crowded one. I went to Darband Shish Kabob.
Darband Shish Kabob looks exotic. Although the restaurant is in the middle of a simple strip center space, the dining room surrounds a running, Eastern-looking fountain. The walls are covered with photos of Iran. The crowd is a mix of Iranians, Turks, Asians, Hispanics, and Caucasians. Above the counter are photos of the different dishes. I had visions of exotic spices and flavors that I have never had.
Then I remembered that Persian food, while often quite good, is never as exotic as I expect. You might think Persia's food would reflect a wide mix of interesting spices because Persia is in the middle of the Medieval spice routes. Instead, every Persian meat dish I ever order is powdered with sumac. Sumac is good, but not quite so flavorful as more pungent spices like cardamom or cumin or curry. Also, most of the Persian restaurants I have visited serve the same dishes: a few grilled meats (lamb, game hen, ground beef), bread, and rice.
Darband Shish Kabob is no exception. I order the lamb shishkabob. It comes with an oblong piece of flat bread, much like a cross between pita bread and a grilled tortilla. The side order consists of some chargrilled tomatoes that have a nice smoky flavor. The lamb comes grilled and sprinkled with lots of sumac.
As I eat the lamb, I am reminded how much more flavor lamb has than beef. Why do Americans prize beef above all other meats when other meats, like lamb, have so much flavor? Perhaps Americans do not want so much flavor in their meats. Perhaps that is why most Americans prefer bland chicken breast to the more flavorful dark meat. This lamb is particularly good because it combines the characteristic flavor of lamb with a smoky grill flavor.
My lamb kabob was perfectly good, even if it was not so exotic a food as I might find elsewhere on Hillcroft. I suspect that the line goes out the door because of the price. The generous kabob and flat bread cost me only $5.95. Hillcroft can be exotic, but it also can be very cheap.