How the '90s paved the way for modern Indian dining in Houston

Three female Indian chefs led the charge and pioneered change.

Photo of Megha McSwain
How three Indian chefs changed Houston dining

How three Indian chefs changed Houston dining

Compiled by Chron

Indian cuisine may be richly represented in Houston today, but it wasn't always so prevalent. The influx of South Asian immigrants in the 1970s and 80s, fueled by dreams of better career opportunities, led to a wave of restaurant openings, in the years that followed.

I moved to Houston with my family in 1986, and grew up witnessing the changes. My father's older brother, an oncologist, settled in Houston for its world-renowned medical center, and he served as a guiding light for our family. Our early years, which consisted of moving from one Alief-area apartment to the next, were humble at best. We found solace in sharing meals at Indian restaurants in neighborhoods densely populated with other South Asians. For us, and other Indian-Americans, these places were a comforting reminder that we were not alone in this big, unfamiliar city. But, for non-Indians, they were virtually unknown.

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As years passed, Indian restaurants slowly began appearing in hip neighborhoods, like Khyber at Upper Kirby and Bombay Brasserie in Uptown. They had candlelit dining rooms and white tablecloths, and they were making the cuisine more visible to Houston diners. Around the same time, a few unlikely restaurateurs took things a step further by incorporating attractive beverage programs, high-quality ingredients, and thoughtfully-designed spaces. This shift began largely in the 90s, when powerhouses like Anita Jaisinghani, Kiran Verma and Shiva Patel were unknowingly building the cornerstones of what would eventually become Houston's impressive modern Indian dining scene.

Their contributions were imaginative and exciting, and Houstonians took note. Thirty years later, these three women operate some of the top-rated restaurants in town, and are highly regarded among their peers. Furthermore, they built a solid foundation for a new era of restaurateurs to establish roots. Before there was Amrina, Musaafer, and Surya India, there were three hard-working Indian women who carved out a space for modern Indian dining in Houston.

Anita Jaisinghani

Anita Jaisinghani

Anita Jaisinghani

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James Beard Award-nominated chef and newly minted cookbook author, Anita Jaisinghani has built a successful modern Indian dining concept with her River Oaks restaurant Pondicheri. However, it was back in the 90s when she set the wheels in motion for building a career in hospitality.

After moving to Houston from India in 1990, Jaisinghani saw Indian dining throughout the city and felt that it was not being represented well. Beyond the food in restaurants, she discovered she couldn't get her hands on a cilantro chutney that wowed her. So, she created the must-have Indian condiment herself. Along with a friend, she developed and jarred her own cilantro chutney, calling the product NJOY. When it came to distribution, she sought out Whole Foods to be a partner. "We got all dressed up and literally just walked into Whole Foods—the original, it was on Shepherd back then—and asked to speak with the buyer," she remembers. Amazingly, a buyer was at the store during their visit. "We didn't even have a card," she recalls laughing. "We left him two jars and a piece of paper with our name and number on it." A call in favor of the product resulted in a done deal. NJOY hit the shelves, with the duo making two additional flavors, and eventually producing the products for Rice Epicurean Market and Whole Foods stores in Austin.

Jaisinghani was an avid cook, and she knew she wanted to open a concept of her own. "I was a serious entertainer. I had no fear with cooking." In order to learn the nitty gritty of working in a commercial kitchen, she walked into Cafe Annie—a fine dining establishment which she considered one of the best in Houston at that time—and asked for a job. "That was my only peek into restaurant kitchens," she says.

While working as a pastry helper from 1998-1999 Jaisinghani extended an invitation to Cafe Annie's chef Robert del Grande to come to her house and sample her cooking. "Robert and his wife Mimi were Hillcroft junkies, they knew Indian food," she says.

Anita Jaisinghani

Anita Jaisinghani

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At her dinner party, she prepared crab samosas, chicken chaat, grilled lamb chops, and saag paneer—dishes which would eventually be part of the opening menu at her first restaurant, Indika. "I put a modern twist on everything I did," she says. "Nobody had heard of crab samosas in Houston then."

Del Grande was impressed and fully supported her goal of opening a restaurant. "Robert and Mimi really gave me that push," she says. "If I didn't work at Cafe Annie, I don't know if I would have a restaurant today."

When she finally opened Indika in 2001, she chose the Memorial area for its home, in lieu of an area with a concentrated South Asian population, like in the Mahatma Gandhi District on Hillcroft. "To me, those restaurants wanted to serve Indians, and I wanted to serve non-Indians," she says. "I felt like American people didn't know what they were missing—that was the bet I took."

Indika's first locale in Memorial turned out to be a success, earning lots of positive buzz among diners and critics alike. The follow-up location in Montrose further cemented Jaisinghani's place in Houston's dining scene, and by the time she opened Pondicheri in River Oaks in 2011, she had built a respected name for herself in town. Today, modern Indian dining in Houston is hardly discussed without the mention of Anita Jaisinghani.

Kiran Verma

Kiran Verma

Kiran Verma

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Before she opened her eponymous restaurant at Levy Park, the road was a winding one for Kiran Verma. The Indian-born chef, who grew up in Delhi and moved to Houston with her husband in the 1970s, honed her chops as a home cook while she worked as a bank teller at Texas Commerce Bank (now Chase). "At that time, there were a lot of us housewives who came from India," she recalls. "We worked part-time, we took care of the family, and we were into cooking."

Verma's passion for working in the kitchen led to the opening of her first restaurant, a barbecue concept called Kebob-B-Q. After giving birth to a daughter in 1980, she put her restaurant dreams on hold as she took on the role of new mom. 

It wasn't until the 90s that she chose to dive back in. Verma started working at Ashiana, an Indo-Pak restaurant in the Energy Corridor. By 1998, when she was 44 years old, she purchased it from the owner, and began making waves as a chef and restaurateur in the city.

She sold Ashiana in 2004, only to buy another existing restaurant called Bombay Palace, which she quickly renamed Kiran's. With her knowledge of traditional Indian cuisine and her experience leading up to this point, she was able to lay the groundwork for one of Houston's first fine dining Indian restaurants.

"I put quail on the menu, and people thought that was so modern," she says, explaining that quail curry was something her grandfather ate when she was growing up. "I found beautiful china, and I presented the quail on a bed of arugula so that it looked like a nest. My imagination went wild."

It may have seemed like she was putting a modern spin on Indian food, but Verma's techniques were rooted in tradition. "Growing up in India, we prepared simple food at home, without the use of too much oil or ghee," she says. "At Kiran's, I would use dry spice rubs and marinate meat in buttermilk or yogurt, which makes proteins moist. It wasn't a modern technique."

Kiran Verma

Kiran Verma

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Before long, Verma's tagline became known as: Traditional Indian, modern chef. Not only was she forward-thinking in her presentation of food, but she began to incorporate fine wine into her concept. "I wondered why people didn't drink wine with Indian food," she says, acknowledging that investing $50k-60k in a wine program was a big risk for a small business owner.

For her, the risk paid off. Kiran's became a destination for wine diners, even earning Wine Spectator's Best Award of Excellence this year. "For an Indian restaurant to be recognized among the steakhouses and French restaurants, you feel so proud," she admits. 

Verma's mainstream success was further fueled by appearances on the latest season of Bravo's Top Chef, recently filmed in Houston. Beyond being known as one of the pioneers of modern Indian dining in Houston, Verma has become well known as an industry leader. "People from Dallas and Austin who saw me on Top Chef will come to Kiran's," she says. "But we have such a loyal clientele – we have so many diners who have been with us since the Ashiana days in the '90s."

Shiva Patel

Shiva Patel and her husband Rick Di Virgilio

Shiva Patel and her husband Rick Di Virgilio

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London-born chef, Shiva Patel, moved to Houston with her family in 1980. "Most of what I was eating then was my mom's home cooking," she recalls. "She is an awesome cook and a huge inspiration for me." Like other immigrants in the city at that time, Patel soon became acquainted with the many Indian restaurants around town, including on Hillcroft Drive, in the Mahatma Gandhi District. "I remember Bombay Palace being one of the more fancy restaurants, with its pink tablecloths," she says, laughing.

Frequent visits back to London with her family allowed her to stay tuned into the presentation of Indian food across the pond. "In my family, food always played a big part of our lives," she says. "I felt like food was going to be something important for me."

Shiva made a career for herself in corporate banking, working on commercial real estate lending, but at night, she attended culinary school at the Art Institute of Houston. She didn't get involved in the restaurant game until the early 2000s when she met her now husband Rick Di Virgilio, who was operating Oporto Cafe in Greenway at the time. When she met the New York-born, half-Portuguese, half-Italian hospitality veteran who had honed his chops as a dishwasher, bartender, server, and restaurant manager, she found herself wanting to help out in his restaurant in her free time. "Once we started cooking together, we knew we had something special to offer," she says. 

Shiva Patel

Shiva Patel

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After the financial crisis in 2008, Patel left banking for good, and she officially joined forces with Di Virgilio. She brought a lot of Indian influence to the menu at Oporto Cafe, and in 2009, the duo opened Queen Vic at Upper Kirby, an Indo-British gastropub. "Much of the food was inspired by my mom's cooking," she admits. "But the combination of Rick and I came into play too."

The restaurant power couple went on to open the more formal Oporto in Midtown in 2014, and most recently Da Gama in 2021. The concepts were stylish, hip, and offered cocktails and wine—and the thread of Indian cuisine ran through them all. "At Da Gama, we tried to create more of an experience," she says. "It's a place where you can spend some time, have drinks and socialize—something different from going to a restaurant on Hillcroft."

Patel acknowledges that Houstonians are more open to Indian cuisine now than ever before. Her contributions, including the way in which she and Di Vigilio presented food in an approachable way with their restaurants, have played a major role in its evolution in Houston. "We are simply putting it up on a pedestal where it should be."

Chron Special
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