Food Fight: Battle Beignets

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A few years ago, when I spent a month getting around Houston entirely by public transit, I found myself checking out from Central Market one warm spring evening at 10 p.m. It had just rained, and the air was fresh and cool, and I didn't feel like waiting a half-hour for the 82 bus, so I decided to hoof it back to my home in the Museum District. At that time of night, Westheimer felt like a different street, peaceful and almost deserted (at least until I got closer to Montrose). A business that was actually open was a rare and beautiful thing, and the bright lights drew me closer with a mothlike intensity. One such beacon was Crescent City Beignets, and you better believe I filled up my tank with some fried dough. It wasn't the best beignet I'd ever had, but it was hot and wreathed in powdered sugar, and that met all of my requirements.

I haven't been back to Crescent City since then, but a recent planned trip to New Orleans fell through and I had beignets on my mind. EOW blogger Nicholas L. Hall has it right: when the mood strikes, there is no substitute. I had always considered Chez Beignets the gold standard for Houston beignets, but clearly it would take a food fight to settle the issue.

To the judging!

Chez Beignets II ($1.50 for one beignet, $4.40 for three)

Chez Beignets embodies a lot of what I love about Houston: it's a French-style beignet shop, run by an older German couple, and patronized almost entirely by Vietnamese and Vietnamese-Americans. The decor is a delightful melange of Parisian scenes and posters of female Vietnamese pop stars, including a few signed photos of said pop stars with the slightly sheepish-looking owner, Joachim Jantzen.

It's open past midnight and is a real hang-out place; even during the day you can find at least one table full of old Vietnamese men, gossiping and drinking coffee. Also of note: The inside is spotless; a number of Yelp reviews complain about the owners being "rude" and not allowing outside food at the tables; and a sign on the door prohibits the wearing of tank tops. (When did tank tops become a sign of trouble?) I assume this restriction only applies to the menfolk, or else I might have to start a boycott of my own.

The first Chez Beignets in Houston was on Buffalo Speedway, in the small shopping center demolished to make way for H-E-B Buffalo Market. For a brief while, Joachim and his wife Teda ran both at the same time, but, as Joachim told me last year, trying to manage two places at the same time was way too much work. Now there is only Chez Beignets II. It's on Bellaire Boulevard, slightly west of the Beltway in the Saigon Houston plaza, across the parking lot from the massive Kim Son and kitty-corner from the perpetually underrated Tony Thai. The move to the Vietnamese part of Chinatown was an easy decision for the Jantzens, as Chez Beignets' clientele was largely Vietnamese even when it was located on Buffalo Speedway.

The beignets at Chez Beignets are slightly crispier and fluffier than the typical New Orleans style (at least to the extent that Cafe du Monde can be considered typical). They are ethereally light, puffed up high and with major air pockets, with a hit of sweetness that you also find in the best baguettes and even a tiny bit of spice (nutmeg, perhaps?) They are dusted with a healthy amount of confectioner's sugar, but the beignets are so good you could eat them without any sugar and they'd still be delicious. Not that I would do such a fool thing. Every beignet is fried to order, and comes served hot to the touch. In short, they are fantastical creations, something both Robb Walsh and Alison Cook have recognized.

Crescent City Beignets ($1.25 for one beignet, $3.50 for three)

When you walk inside this shop it smells overwhelmingly like a Subway. Perhaps that's because it is located next to a Subway in the Lamar--River Oaks center, or perhaps because it, too, sells sandwiches. Either way, it's not good. I didn't remember that smell from my last visit, and I wonder how much longer Crescent City Beignets will be around.

Founded in 1997 by two brothers who had tried in vain to convince Cafe du Monde to start franchising, this was always intended as a New Orleans coffee-shop concept restaurant. And for a time it was successful, with 40 franchisees and more than 100 units in development, and the honor of being named one of the "Hot Concepts" for 2004 by Nation's Restaurant News. But the original owners sold out long ago, and all of the Houston locations have closed but for this location, the very first. The menu lists the four other extant locations (two in Memphis, one in Colliersville, TN and another in Southaven, MIS) and gamely offers a phone number for those interested in franchise opportunities. Would you like to know more?

The decor feels like an imagineered version of New Orleans: mounted photos of Cafe du Monde and other street scenes, masks on the walls, and cheap plastic streamers hanging from the ceiling, presumably leftover from Mardi Gras.

The beignet is okay, but it's heavy and somewhat misshapen, both because it's absorbed more oil and because the dough is inexpertly cut. It puffs up well, but is considerably chewier and denser than other beignets I've had. I'm not sure if it's possible for a beignet to have too much sugar, but this one comes close. It looks like the Matterhorn. The service was friendly enough, but all in all this place feels uninspired, like everyone there is just marking time.

The Winner: Chez Beignets, going away. It's worth noting that Joachim Jantzen had been the night manager of Crescent City Beignets, but, after a disagreement with the then-owner, quit in 1999 to open Chez Beignets. I think he made the right decision.

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