Welcome to the sixth part of a series where we showcase the noteworthy food and drink experiences of a very weird year. In the spirit of the holidays, it's also a very special collaboration between the food writers of the Houston Press and Houston Food Finder, the online publication founded by former Houston Press restaurant critic and food editor Phaedra Cook. This sixth edition features one of our favorite pick-me-ups: coffee. Part seven will cover some of our writers' favorite delivery and to-go experiences.
Favorite Coffee Shop Evolutions
With temporary closures, limited capacity and more people working from home, coffee shops, like bars and restaurants, had to adapt to a landscape disrupted by COVID-19. Some shops added new safety features and some, such as Antidote Coffee and Black Hole, began selling basic pantry items. Here are a couple of our favorites that made clever changes for the times.
A 2nd Cup, 1111 East 11th: This Heights coffee shop, dedicated to raising money to fight human trafficking, has gone through several adaptations during the pandemic. For much of 2020, the indoor seating has been replaced by a small community shop filled with local artisan goods such as candles, teas and masks. The coffee shop relocated guest seating to a portion of the parking lot, putting several, well-spaced picnic tables under large, canopy-style tents.
Xela Coffee Roasters, 4409 Canal: At the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic, the team at Xela Coffee Roasters took action, readjusting the patio seating and adding an arboretum’s worth of plants to create natural barriers. The shop was made entirely contactless by sealing the ordering window, adding an intercom and online ordering options and creating a metal two-way pickup box. To encourage to-go purchases, all of the shop’s cold drinks are now pre-bottled. A major focus of Xela Coffee Roasters is to help the Second Ward community, so it's held regular pop-ups featuring up-and-coming chefs and allowed DJ’s to play on the weekends, all the while enforcing social distancing standards. It also launched a lifestyle merchandise brand. — Ryan Kasey Baker, contributing writer, Houston Food Finder
Favorite Coffee Roasters
The number of Houston coffee roasters climbs every year, so determining which ones excel at the craft is tricky. Not every roaster strives for the same outcome, and flavor and execution can vary widely. That said, expert roasting of quality coffee beans is often distinguishable in the cup. With a vastly more competitive field, these days, up-and-coming roasters have to bring something new to the local coffee scene in order to succeed. The following are those that caught our attention in 2020.
Amanecer Co.: Some of the specialty roasters in Houston that started a decade ago or longer are juggernauts compared to Marlen Mendoza’s small startup. Regardless, Amanecer is already gaining local attention, even among coffee professionals at the aforementioned Little Dreamer and Xela Coffee Roasters. Visit Henderson & Kane, Tienda Rio Lempa or Local Foods in Rice Village for the mellow cold brew — as well as the version with horchata. Also keep an eye on Instagram for Mendoza's espresso and pour-over coffee pop-ups at Grand Prize Bar.
Little Dreamer: Matt Toomey, originally with Boomtown Coffee, started his new roastery in 2019 as a way to get back to basics: making good coffee, serving Houston and "keeping the mojo flowing.” Despite Little Dreamer being a fairly new entry to Houston's coffee scene, Toomey has a well-established reputation as a roaster — and that's helped when it comes to sourcing good-quality beans, such as a recently used, natural-process Ethiopian and his newest Panamanian offerings While Little Dreamer does not have a storefront, Houston coffee lovers can find it in over a dozen spots, including Central City Co-op, Tres Market, Urban Harvest's Saturday Farmers Market and Red Dessert Dive.
Tenfold Coffee, 101 Aurora: Over the course of 2020, founder Jacob Ibarra and his team have turned Tenfold Coffee into a power house. It's gone from a secondary roaster in a few shops to having a gorgeous new spot next to Johnny’s Gold Brick Tavern, and a second coffee program featured at "lifestyle marketplace" Fourth and Nomad and a presence at other shops such as Blockhouse Coffee & Kitchen and A 2nd Cup. While early roasting profiles didn't hit the mark, over the past year Tenfold has remedied those initial missteps, vastly improved and it's now well worth attention.
Xela Coffee Roasters, 4409 Canal: In an informal survey of coffee professionals around city about Houston’s best roaster, Xela was, by a wide margin, the one mentioned most. Visit the company's small shop, and it's likely you'll find your favorite baristas enjoying coffee on the patio. Kaitlin O’Brien and Benji Aguilar, the duo behind this local roastery and coffee shop, treat coffee as more of a passion than a business. However, it's impossible to ignore the high-quality roasting in a selection of profiles from a diverse array of good beans, including those source from Vietnam, Mexico and Yemen. Xela started as roastery and distributor, before adding a coffee shop, so its beans can also be found at the Chinook coffee trailer and Grinder's Coffee Bar in Rice Village. — Ryan Kasey Baker, contributing writer, Houston Food Finder
R.I.P.: Favorite Coffee Shops
Boomtown Coffee Main Street, 300 Main: In March 2018, it was comforting to hear that the former Honeymoon Café was being taken over by Boomtown Coffee, the longtime roasters behind the coffee drinks served at that shop. Alas, alas, coronavirus made that iteration far too short-lived, and Boomtown Coffee Main Street closed in July 2020. With many downtown workers checking in from home due to the pandemic, patronage dropped, and what was one of Houston’s most beautifully appointed coffee shop died with it. It’s not that this closing is just a loss of well-executed coffee beverages; the shop also crafted thoughtful cocktails and wholesome breakfast dishes. With the city of Houston now closing parts of Main Street to all but pedestrian traffic, hopefully someone can make good use of the space. For now, downtown visitors and denizens can visit the nearby Boomtown Coffee at 800 Capitol in the Understory food hall. Plus, the Heights location at 242 West 19th is still brewing coffee and making lattes.
Momentum Coffee, 3555 Rayford, Spring: This top-notch coffee shop in Spring never got the notice or appreciation it deserved. Co-owner Allen Leibowitz, who made a name for himself at Zingerman’s Coffee Company in Ann Arbor, Michigan, is so well-regarded in the national coffee industry that he often served as an SCAA competition judge and is a lead instructor. Though the closing might have felt like it was just a blip on the local radar, nationally, it was impactful enough that the news was covered by Forbes magazine. The center of the craft coffee movement in the Greater Houston area needs to expand past the 610 Loop, and while strides have been made, it seems that Spring wasn’t ready yet.
Morningstar, 4721 North Main: In a year that’s already decimated Houston’s independent food and beverage scene, this loss cuts especially deep. Owners Ecky Prabanto and David Buehrer, with the help of Buehrer’s former boss and mentor Sam Phan, asked, “Can you build a better donut — one without artificial ingredients?” And the answer was, “Yes.” The resulting texture would not be the airy one popularized by chains, but the icing flavors were compelling: matcha tea, horchata, the popular “Cop Donut” with cinnamon and sugar — really, Morningstar deserves credit for helping bring the mochi doughnut trend to Houston, too. That’s just part of what the shop offered. The Crispy Rice Bowl with kibbeh and kolache featuring Feges BBQ shouldn’t be forgotten, nor should the matcha lattes. The loss of this particular shop is immeasurable to not only Heights residents, but to anyone who traveled many miles for a taste. — Phaedra Cook, editor/publisher, Houston Food Finder