Himalaya Restaurant in Houston Reaches 15 Years Amid a Mix of Accomplishments & Challenges
Himalaya Restaurant at 6652 Southwest Freeway is now 15 years old. Owned and operated by Kaiser and Azra Lashkari, it has received much acclaim both locally and nationally and is a regular haunt for avid Houston diners. The spotlight on Himalaya grew particularly bright after the late chef and writer Anthony Bourdain visited Himalaya in 2018 and featured it on his CNN show, Parts Unknown. More recently, Andrew Zimmern dined there as part of his Houston restaurant tour for his Travel Channel show, The Zimmern List.
Kaiser Lashkari cites those two visits as some of the biggest honors of his life, but also says he’s grateful for everyone else who has dined at Himalaya, including visiting Pakistanis, judges and police officials. “When the food is prepared, everybody is treated like a celebrity. We check every plate. We don’t know who’s sitting outside the kitchen but we make sure the food is right,” he said. “The secret to our success is that it’s seldom anyone will have a less-than-good experience at Himalaya. We do everything possible to keep up the quality.”
While Kaiser’s larger-than-life presence and gregarious nature mean that he’s the one giving the interviews, he readily acknowledges that much of Himalaya’s success was possible thanks to having his wife at his side. “Azra works twice as hard as me. I cook and prepare the recipes and teach [the cooks] but she expedites orders and checks every single one that goes out. It’s 51 percent her, 49 percent me and 100 percent luck. In our culture, we say the wife brings the money and luck to a marriage, and in my case it’s very true.”
A native of Karachi, Pakistan, Kaiser was originally supposed to be a doctor and says he was only two years away from a medical degree, but after discovering a love of cooking instead moved to Houston and attended the Hilton College at the University of Houston. There, he earned a master’s degree in hotel and restaurant management. After gaining experience at other businesses, he and Azra opened a tiny, ten-seat restaurant on the corner of Beechnut and Kirkwood called Kaiser’s. Later, the Lashkaris closed that one in favor of a bigger space with a new name in the Mahatma Gandhi District: Himalaya.
The Lashkaris are the definition of “hands-on owners.” Other than Mondays, the one day a week the restaurant is closed, both are usually at the restaurant. For the first time in 2018, the Lashkaris decided to take off for Thanksgiving. “For the last six or seven years, we’d make Masala Turkey. I’d have 25 or 30 orders, so I’d work around the clock and sleep at a nearby motel on Hillcroft. I’d come in overnight to turn the turkeys and adjust the temperature. It was a lot of work and last year, I said, I just need to relax. I’m not young anymore,” he said with a laugh. They also got lucky that year when Christmas Eve and New Year’s Eve happened to fall on a Monday.
Other than that, the only time Himalaya wasn’t open for regular business hours was the day that Kaiser’s mother died, a day that he cites as one of the most challenging in the history of the business. “I was working at the restaurant and had to cater a wedding. I had to choose for her funeral to be on a Monday because of the restaurant,” he said. “With a lot of difficulties and a lot of support, I was able to pull off that catering. I’d already taken money from them and the family members were good friends. I couldn’t say ‘no.’”
Another difficult moment was when Lashkari went out to purchase spices from a wholesaler for the restaurant. For whatever reason, the proprietor didn’t have the lights on and Lashkari walked off the back of a loading dock and fell six feet onto concrete. “I broke and dislocated my shoulder. I went to the emergency room, they fixed me up and I was back at the restaurant the next day cooking for a party. That’s the party I’d went to buy the special spices for. You know us Aries — come hell or high water, if we want to do something we do it against all odds. We are fighters.” Lashkari ended up cooking with one arm for a few weeks after that.
In addition to the periodic tragedies that life throws at us, there are day-to-day challenges of running a restaurant as well. One Lashkari cites is “getting people to come into work every day.” “The staff turnover is great, in not just this restaurant but in the industry,” he says. “Then you have to operate with a skeleton staff.”
Himalaya’s visibility can be at least partially credited to Lashkari’s innovative dishes that combine his culinary heritage with the flavors of his adopted home. Some of those attention-getting renditions include masala-infused fried chicken, chicken fried steak served with “cream gravy” that has coconut milk as the base and brisket. Lashkari also serves his own twist on chicken and dumplings on occasion, as well crawfish étouffée, bisteca and “Parathadilla” — his take on a quesadilla on Indian flatbread. He says he’s currently developing a Pakistani version of Mexican mole and a Spicy Masala Meatloaf.
“I love seeing older people who don’t often eat spicy food come to eat, turn as red as a tomato, have perspiration glistening on their foreheads and still really enjoy it,” he said. “That is the biggest joy. The other day, a gentleman told me ‘You taught my son how to eat spicy food and now he wants to come here for his birthday.’”
Lashkari says that he believes the adage, “You’re only as good as your last dish.’” “You can’t just keep basking in your past laurels and not do anything new and inventive. You have to keep the guests interested. How much biryani and chicken curry can they eat? You have to do other things that people will like.” That said, both of those classic dishes are Himalaya’s hallmarks.
Asked for advice for up-and-coming restaurateurs, Lashkari emphasizes that having a highly visible restaurant location is important, even if that means paying a little more for rent. “Look for that location where people can easily visit,” he said.
As far as the food goes, he says, “Listen to customer comments about changing recipes but if you feel in your heart that you’re already serving the best one, stick with it. Don’t change it based on the comments of a few. Work hard and leave it to God.”
In addition, in Houston, a widespread city where most people drive rather than use public transportation, Lashkari says the importance of offering adequate parking can’t be emphasized enough — and he has some experience with that. “My previous restaurant had only three parking spaces per tenant. When I started to enforce my parking rights, someone scratched my car, broke the glass front windows, damaged the fan on the roof and put gum in my front door lock. I think someone was trying to make me move so they could have my parking.” As it was, he stood his ground until he opened Himalaya.
The Lashkaris could probably open a second Himalaya location but haven’t because even with their success, they’ll never forget the potential hardships and risks of their past experiences. “I don’t ever want to forget that when we started, we had almost no money even for food,” Kaiser said. “We’d borrowed money from everybody. Except for one friend, no one even asked me to sign paperwork. One of my biggest joys was the day we paid off the last loan. We paid off everybody.”
Lashkari says he occasionally thinks about retirement, but the ongoing success and national recognition over the past four or five years keep him going. In addition, after years of running a restaurant, he’d probably be a little stir-crazy. “What will I do sitting at home doing nothing? Azra says, ‘You don’t need to retire. You’ll sit at home and drive me nuts.’”
Phaedra Cook has written about Houston’s restaurant and bar scene since 2010. She was a regular contributor to My Table magazine (now closed) and was the lead restaurant critic for the Houston Press for two years, eventually being promoted to food editor. Cook founded Houston Food Finder in November 2016 and has been its editor and publisher ever since.