Veh-Ree Theen Pancakes
Real men don't eat quiche. Or crepes.
At least, that's one of the seminal messages in that erudite cinematic examination of NASCAR, Talladega Nights. As those who've seen this provocative opus know, a pivotal plot point concerns the heroic refusal of one Ricky Bobby, an American race car driver (played with Olivier-like precision by Will Ferrell), to publicly declare his fondness for crepes -- despite the threat of having his arm broken by a French competitor. Even when his Gallic adversary offers a compromise -- "Just sssay you like zee veh-ree theen pancakes, hokay?" -- our champion is unyielding.
While most of America has probably never had to make such a bold and potentially injurious choice, our general disregard for "zee veh-ree theen pancakes" seems to parallel Mr. Bobby's. Crepes have never quite taken hold here in the States. As with quiche, there remains a kind of elitist aura associ- ated with them (even though they're both fairly utilitarian). Crepes seem...dainty.
So you're not going to find Ricky or countless others of his ilk frequenting an establishment that specializes in them. And that's particularly true if the establishment also happens to be named "CoCo's."
But CoCo's Crepes & Coffee -- to use the full name -- does have it supporters. Or maybe it's more like a captive audience? This pocket-size coffee shop, with a few tables inside and several outside on the broad, brick sidewalk, is located in Midtown, amid upscale apartment and townhouse complexes where a host of twenty-, thirty- and fortysomethings have set up urban camp. They provide a solid, if somewhat small, customer base. Many of these folks probably pride themselves on being urbane enough to enjoy a crepe or two without feeling self-conscious.
CoCo's is the latest project of Houston restaurateur Youssef Nafaa, who also owns Mia Bella, Cava Bistro and Saffron. Along with the sweet and savory crepes, there are panini (or grilled Eye-talian sandwiches, as Ricky Bobby might call them), smoothies, cream sodas, gelati, specialty teas and an array of coffee-based beverages with tongue-tripping descriptions like "Large White Chocolate Mocha Decaf with Half and Half on Ice."
All of this cosmopolitan fare is prepared in an area not much bigger than a Peugeot -- and that's probably why service at CoCo's can be paint-dryingly slow if there's a crowd. And by "crowd" I mean two other people. There are two crepe stations and two panini-grillers, but work space is at such a premium, the staff are either bumping into one another or standing idly by waiting for some elbow room to open up. It's the kind of arrangement that would make an efficiency expert weep. Waits of 20 minutes for an order are not unusual during high-traffic periods.
Is the food worth the wait? Depends.
Certainly not if you're on the go-go and want your grub and java soon. CoCo's can drive you cuckoo.
Yes, if you're up for the overall experience and had the foresight to order an icy watermelon soda or vanilla CoCoccino to sip leisurely as you sit outside and watch the rich pageant we call Life in Midtown. A cop escorts a homeless man down the street. Two dressed-to-kill blondes drop the Benz with the valet and saunter into The Fish. An apartment dweller juggling a huge armload of dirty clothes trudges on to the laundry room. A skateboard punk, brandishing a slice from the New York Pizzeria, whizzes by. A table of big thinkers, already eating their CoCo's chow, debate whether "crepes" should rhyme with "drape" or "strep."
When your order is filled, you'll find the savory -- that is, non-dessert -- crepes are good-sized but need to be paired with a bowl of soup (tomato basil is the single choice on the menu) or a salad to serve as a full meal for most diners. There are two salads offered -- a Caesar and a garden -- but here's a verbatim exchange about that:
Diner: What's in the garden salad?
Staffer #1: I think maybe we're out of lettuce. Hey (shouting to Staffer #2), aren't we out of lettuce?
Staffer #2: What? No. Wasn't there a big ol' bag of it somewhere just yesterday? Or the day before?
Staffer #1: Where?
Diner: Uh, that's okay...
Mmmm-mmm! Salad from a big ol' bag of lettuce that's gone missing. Sounds great, huh?
One crepe I had was filled with tender chicken and nicely sautéed fresh spinach (bound with some gooey mozzarella), so somebody is doing some decent cooking somewhere in this process. I suspect it's not on-site, though, and most of the crepe and sandwich fillings are being prepared elsewhere, then transported here. Another version successfully combined goat cheese, roasted red peppers and spinach into a vegetarian delight. Along with these standards, you're welcome to mix and match with a "create your own" option at $5 for two ingredients -- which includes roasted vegetables, sautéed mushrooms, ricotta, over-dried tomatoes, eggs and caramelized onions. For another dollar, you can add chicken, ham, turkey, smoked salmon or Moroccan sausage.
It's basically the same approach on the sweet side of the ledger, with a plethora of ingredients that are pre-combined (ranging from $2.50 for a simple cinnamon-and-sugar creation to $4.90 for a raspberry crepe filled with strawberry, banana and white chocolate mousse) or self-selected at $4 for two ingredients and one sauce. Additional fillings are $1. Perversely, I found myself wondering what CoCo's would do if someone rattled off, say, all 12 extra ingredients. Still try to stuff them into a single crepe and charge you $16? Tell you it can't be done? Hit you in the head with a big ol' bag of lettuce?
My own favorite is a mix of bananas and Nutella, that wonderfully gooey blend of chocolate and hazelnut that's been popular in Europe since the 1950s and is just now becoming widespread over here. Vaingloriously, I was going to take credit for inventing this particular combination till I was informed that bananas-and-Nutella has been a standard of sidewalk vendors in London and Paris for decades.
For the crepe purists wondering if CoCo's uses one type of batter for the sweet and another for the savory, that answer would be no. It's a single, all-purpose mixture. Another grouse: You'll be served on a paper plate and provided flimsy plastic silverware. On the bright side, the to-go orders are packed in hard plastic shells, not that feeble white Styrofoam.
The grilled sandwiches at CoCo's are made on oversize slices of sourdough-ish bread (instead of the ciabatta or baguettes often used), and the fillings are pretty much the same ingredients used in the savory crepes. The two panini I sampled -- one with goat cheese and roasted red peppers, the other Moroccan sausage -- were rather tepid and surprisingly saccharine. It could be the caramelized onions.
CoCo's provides free Wi-fi, and on one visit I saw a laptopper clicking away happily as she nursed some odd-looking tea (chocolate mate?).
No doubt CoCo's regulars are well attuned to the ebb and flow of the place and its appealing, if not entirely successful, menu. The question for the rest of us, then, is how keen are we to have "zee veh-ree theen pancakes"? Frankly, I'm not dying to go back. But, unlike Ricky Bobby, you wouldn't have to twist my arm.
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