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Get a glimpse of Pena's kitchen, candy-colored donuts and delicious burgers in our slideshow.
Witness this most Texan of scenes: It's early on a spring morning, bright sunlight bearing down on a field of tall prairie grass across a newly paved highway in a pristine suburb south of Houston. Mockingbirds chirp as you sit outside in the sun enjoying a kolache stuffed with chorizo at a little family-run restaurant across the highway from a middle school named after Texas Rangers pitcher Nolan Ryan.
Such is a typical morning at Peña's Donut Heaven & Grill, a restaurant that occupies an endcap space in one of the newer strip malls in Pearland's pretty Shadow Creek neighborhood. On the outside wall of Peña's, a drive-thru window has been carved out of the brick and cars whip through in the mornings to grab kolaches and donuts by the dozen. Inside, owner Raymond Peña is usually seated at a table near the far wall, greeting customers by name and overseeing the last existing restaurant in what was once a mini donut empire.
His donuts are better than most Shipley's, and certainly better than my morning standards at Christy's in Montrose. They're soft and warm, the doughy interior possessed of a stunningly fine architecture that allows them to collapse just enough as you bite through the crispy glazed exterior, providing that ideal balance of chewiness and lightness one looks for in a seriously good donut. His kolaches come close to being better than Shipley's, too.
They're $1.49 each, no matter which kind you get. Sausage and cheese; ham and cheese; sausage, cheese and jalapeño — these are all standard offerings at any donut shop worth its glaze. But Ray ups the ante, offering not only a boudin kolache (seriously, Shipley's, watch out for this guy) but a chorizo and egg kolache that made me suddenly question why I'd never seen this perfect bit of Tex-Mex-Czech ingenuity anywhere in Houston before.
The same orange grease-laced chorizo seen in breakfast tacos across Central and South Texas is married with that other Texas breakfast favorite: the meat-stuffed klobasnek, which we have collectively come to refer to as a "kolache" over the years despite the fact that there is no fruit in the sweet pastry dough. There's melty Cheddar cheese inside Peña's chorizo kolache, too, and the combo ensures that I'll dutifully order one every time I go in, despite the other breakfast options available.
Peña makes a killer maple-bacon bar, a long donut coated with a sugary maple glaze and topped with house-cooked bacon that's both salty and a little bit peppery. He also makes breakfast tacos to his customers' specifications: You can choose from a variety of ingredients — three to a taco, extras only 75 cents — such as eggs, ham, jalapeños and more. And, yes, chorizo is an option, too. The breakfast tacos are served on hot, homemade flour tortillas, thick with masa and quick to stiffen up at room temperature, but that doesn't usually matter, as I eat mine before they have a chance to cool off.
If quick breakfasts and donuts on your way into work aren't your speed (and Peña's makes an excellent pit stop before braving Highway 288 north into town on busy mornings), you can order a full sit-down breakfast and eat your bacon and eggs with Peña himself as you watch the ebb and flow of customers in the mornings.
Raymond Peña was almost born to the breakfast business. His parents ran a successful Shipley franchise for nearly two decades before retiring. And when they did, Ray decided to start up a shop of his own in 1996. You can still find that original Peña's Donut Heaven in southeast Houston, near Sagemont, with some of Peña's signature touches — boudin kolaches, build-your-own breakfast tacos, breakfast combo specials — although Peña himself no longer owns that location.
The one here in Shadow Creek is the only donut shop that Peña still runs, and it's the polar opposite of the scruffy, poorly organized madhouse in southeast Houston. The location on Shadow Creek Parkway is gleamingly clean and inviting, looking more like a casual family restaurant than a donut shop. There's a patio out front with iron chairs beckoning from underneath cheerful red umbrellas. Inside, tall ceilings provide the small space with an airy feel as most of the square footage is devoted to a kitchen where Peña makes most everything in-house.
Unlike other donut shops that close up after noon, Peña's stays open to feed both lunch and dinner crowds a range of basic Texas diner food: burgers, hot dogs, taco and enchilada plates, deli sandwiches and salads. It was at lunch, in fact, that I discovered something even greater than the chorizo kolache: Peña's incredible cheeseburger.
My heart started fluttering as I unwrapped the beast (at eight ounces, the burgers don't skimp on the beef): The bun was soft and eggy, but clearly enough of a match for the double meat patties within. The produce was bright and fresh, with thick-cut pickles, cherry-red tomato slices and dark green lettuce all elbowing each other for room between the buns. And cheese had been placed both between the patties and on top of them, melting onto my fingers before I'd even taken a bite.