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Gelato Grotto

There's a dark cave in Rice Village where you can linger over ice cream and espresso

"White or wheat?" asked the perky order-taker at the Black Walnut Cafe, the counter-service restaurant on Morningside. I'd ordered the black-bean-and-cheese "Tex-Mex omelet" for breakfast, and it came with a side of toast.

"I'll have flour tortillas," I replied.

"We don't do that," she said.

The Black Walnut Cafe's main attraction is the gelato.
Troy Fields
The Black Walnut Cafe's main attraction is the gelato.

Location Info

Map

Black Walnut Cafe

5510 Morningside
Houston, TX 77005

Category: Restaurant > Cafe

Region: Kirby-West U

Black Walnut Cafe

2520 Research Forest Drive
Spring, TX 77381

Category: Restaurant > Cafe

Region: Outside Houston

Details

Hours: 7:57 a.m. to 10:03 p.m. Mondays through Saturdays; 7:57 a.m. to 9:03 p.m. Sundays.

Black Walnut salad: $9.9743
Meatball sandwich: $7.9529
Tex-Mex omelet: $6.7943
Spinach and mushroom quiche: $5.6312
Rustic grilled cheese: $6.7961

5510 Morningside Drive, 713-526-5551.

The Black Walnut Cafe has a section on its to-go menu extolling its "outstanding service" and "guest first" attitude. The text goes so far as to call the staff "caring." The real reason I asked for tortillas instead of toast was to see how the woman behind the counter would react. And she wasn't acting very caring, if you ask me.

"Why not?" I asked.

"Excuse me?" she said, looking bewildered.

"Why no tortillas?"

"Because the omelette comes with toast," she said.

"You have quesadillas. And you make quesadillas on flour tortillas, right?" I asked, doing my Jack Nicholson impression.

The woman turned red, then she excused herself to go find a manager. Either she was about to lose it, or the decision to substitute tortillas for toast on a breakfast order at the Black Walnut Cafe is an executive-level decision -- I'm not sure which.

In the end, I got my tortillas, along with a dry and boring omelette with black beans cooked into the eggs, some cheese inside and some colored tortilla wisps on top. My companion's quiche tasted like it was heated in a microwave. You could find a better-tasting breakfast -- and a better attitude -- at any taco truck in the city.

It's odd when a fast-casual restaurant boasts about high-quality service. Isn't the walk-up-counter concept about eliminating service? You pour your own water, tea and coffee, get up and get your own food when the little buzzer goes off -- and don't forget your silverware, or you'll have to make another trip. You do all the work. And then they have the cods to brag about their "caring" service?

The Black Walnut Cafe was founded by George Pallotta, the guy who started Sghettie's in The Woodlands. He also owns two Pallotta's Italian Grills in the northwest suburbs. The original Black Walnut Cafe, which opened in The Woodlands in 2002, was supposed to be an "American upscale coffeehouse/cafe." Alongside national chain neighbors like Tommy Bahama's and Benihana, it stands out like a rough-hewn original, I'm sure. In Rice Village, it feels like any other chain outlet.

"It looks like a fern bar in a cave," one of my dining companions said of the decor at the Morningside location. There are lots of dark wood panels and giant plants in the dimly lit space. A series of belts and flywheels runs across the high ceilings, powering an extensive set of mismatched fans. There are plumbing pipes for fixtures and wingback chairs at some of the tables. I told her that I liked the interior design, despite its studied eccentricity. Dark, cavelike spaces are very comfortable in the glaring afternoon of a Houston summer, I contended, and at least the plants aren't plastic. She pronounced me a fern-bar-era relic.

But the Black Walnut Cafe really is different from all the other big chain restaurants. Just look at their hours and their prices. They open at 7:57 a.m. and close at 10:03 p.m. -- kooky! The big menu in the front listed my omelette at $6.7943. The quiche was $5.6312. How eccentric can you get?

Just don't ruin the illusion by asking for substitutions.


The woman behind the counter heated my big ceramic coffee cup with a splash of hot water before handing it to me, so my coffee stayed hot after I poured it. That was a nice touch. The place also serves espresso and other coffee drinks. But there was only one other table occupied at breakfast time.

The restaurant is much busier later in the day, and the main attraction seems to be the ten tubs of gelato in the lighted display case at the front counter. During my two dinner visits, I watched group after group walk in and order nothing but Italian ice cream.

I asked the cashier if the Black Walnut uses a mix or if it has its own recipes. He said they used their own recipes, but he wasn't convincing. Made from scratch or a mix, it's pretty good gelato. The flavors change daily. There was no chocolate the last time I was there. But they had mango, strawberry, raspberry, hazelnut, panna cotta, peanut butter and pistachio.

My daughter got a peanut butter and strawberry combo. It tasted like a PB&J sandwich. Another dining companion got the panna cotta and mango. She said the panna cotta tasted like marshmallows. The mango had a fresh, tart flavor and was decorated with slices of the fruit. I got the pistachio, which was a disturbing dark olive-green color. But it had a thick texture and a wonderfully intense flavor.

The Black Walnut makes a fluffy sort of gelato rather than the dense, chewy version, but there's plenty of butterfat in it. And since there aren't many places to get gelato in Houston these days, you have to give them high marks.

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