Pena's Is Donut Heaven

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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.

The burger was gloriously messy, full of crunch and ooze and sharp tanginess from the mustard and white onions. My only complaint was the overcooked patties, but even those were easy to forgive, hand-formed and craggy like the face of the Moon. Less appealing was Ray's Frito pie burger, which was an open-faced mess of chili and Fritos poured atop a stack of those patties and a bun. It needed more cheese and fewer Fritos, being too dry otherwise — even with the addition of sautéed onions on top.

Those sautéed onions are used to greater effect in Debbie's soft tacos (Peña has a habit of naming dishes after his friends and family), which are essentially fajita tacos. Beef or chicken fajita meat is tucked inside those same flour tortillas, along with sautéed bell peppers and onions. It's such a simple thing, that basic fajita taco, beautiful in its unadorned flavors — and an easy dinner that you can pick up to go on the way home.

In the mornings, the restaurant encourages sort of a reverse tactic, tempting patrons to pick up a to-go salad for lunch while they're getting breakfast. It was an irresistible proposition one busy day last week when I knew I wouldn't be able to leave the office once I got in. I ordered a Cobb salad to go along with my chorizo kolache, then was surprised to find that I had to wait a good five minutes for my salad.

I wasn't at all mad; instead, I was delighted to be presented with a salad featuring ingredients that had clearly been prepped and chopped à la minute, with more of that thick-cut, home-cooked bacon from the maple bars and a mad jumble of hardboiled eggs, meat, veggies and cheese over a lettuce blend that was more than just iceberg. This salad hadn't been pulled, premade, out of a refrigerator. It was beautifully fresh and worth every cent of its meager $7 price tag.

It's these little surprises that Peña's has in store every time that make me eager for each return visit. I'm told there's a hot dog I have to try: the foot-long Mastiff, which is covered with chili, cheese and onions on Thursdays for Peña's daily lunch special, perfect for the increasingly summery weather. Those quiet suburban views under a red umbrella are already beckoning me back.


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