Confession: I have a serious addiction to baked goods. This addiction includes -- but is certainly not limited to -- cakes, brownies, muffins, bagels, cookies, wheat breads, pies, donuts, cupcakes, cinnamon rolls, kolaches, danishes and pastries of all sorts. When it comes to these divine carb-filled treats, I just can't control myself. And why would I? They fill my heart with warmth and happiness, make me smile from ear to ear and keep my cheeks a little too round. Hey, everything has its price.
If you share my passion for bread and baked good-eating, then we should totally be friends. We should also create a club called Bread Eater's Anonymous, in which we exchange our latest made-in-the-oven creations, discuss recent trends in baking and venture out to local restaurants with the sole goal of devouring the contents of bread baskets and dessert menus. Are you in? Awesome. I'll get to planning the first meeting. In the meantime, you should get your fix at the top five bakeries in The Woodlands:
5. Viva Itacate Bakery & Cafe This small, authentic, family-owned and operated Mexican spot has been pleasing Woodlands residents for a little over a year. In that short time, Viva Itacate has doubled its floor space to keep up with its high volume of customers. What keeps people going back for more? Items like pan de elote -- the Mexican version of cornbread; manos de queso -- rich and creamy cheese danishes; sinfully delicious mini bacon quiche; and perfect-size empanadas filled with everything from beef to spinach and cheese to poblano with cheese.
As a bonus, Viva Itacate offers home-cooked Mexican delights such as tortas and cochinita pibil -- an excellent option for lunch or an early dinner. With four successful locations running in Tampico, Mexico, this bakery and cafe absolutely knows what it's doing. However, service can often be a bit slow and inattentive, the main reason that this quaint little place doesn't rank higher up on the list.
4. Hubbell & Hudson Market Hubbell & Hudson is not a bakery. It's a grocery store -- Houston's Best Grocery Store, mind you, according to the 2012 Best of Houston® issue. While Hubbell & Hudson is not a free-standing bakery, it has a wonderful, large bakery department that holds its own. In fact, if the department decided to break off into its own business, it would undoubtedly experience raging success. Why? Because they use fine ingredients that translate into consistently good products. And their fantastic breads and pastries are unfailingly fresh. In the bread category, the crusty Italian, challah and ciabatta are winners. Try making French toast with that ciabatta; you'll thank me later.
For sweets, turn to the almond croissants -- fluffy, almond cream-filled masterpieces. Or pick up a couple crowd-pleasing cupcakes geared towards brew-loving adults, such as Guinness-flavored cupcakes for St. Patrick's day, or Blue Moon cupcakes in the summer, complete with tangy orange icing. Whichever baked good you choose, pair it with your favorite drink -- milk, juice, cappuccino, beer or wine -- sit back and relax as you put your people-watching skills to use in the fine grocery store's sleek cafe seating area.
3. Great Harvest Bread Co. With more than ten years under its belt in its Woodlands location, Great Harvest Bread Co. is the veteran bakery on the block. The franchise is known for milling its own superior quality wheat, used as the basis for the unfailingly popular honey whole wheat bread, along with house-made cakes, muffins and newly introduced cake pops.
Mystery has no place at Great Harvest Bread Co. -- if you find yourself wondering what the pumpkin chocolate chip bread tastes like, or if that icing topping a scrumptious-looking carrot cake is as good as it looks, simply ask a staff member for a taste. They'll happily put a loaf of bread, muffin or anything else on their cutting board and cut you a slice for your tasting pleasure. For the record, that icing, and pretty much everything in the store, tastes as good or better than it looks. Great Harvest also sells jars of delectable all-natural, sugarless fruit preservatives, along with a short list of fine-tasting sandwiches that are great for getting to-go for a picnic date.
2. Trico Panaderia Located on a seemingly abandoned building on the feeder road of I-45 South, this barely visible Mexican panaderia, or bakery, is an undiscovered gem, complete with tall shelves, beautiful, spotlight lighting and linen-lined woven baskets holding countless varieties of wonderful Mexican sweet breads. Trico's conchas -- the quintessential Mexican pan dulce -- are amazing, so amazing that they taste even better than a lot of conchas found in Mexico's own bakeries. And that's saying a lot.
The chocolate-dipped orejas, or palmiers, are also worth trying, as are the danes (cream cheese-filled pastries) and cajeta muffins (buttery muffins with sweetened caramelized milk baked into them). And these delicious treats are very reasonably priced. Note: There is no seating room here.
1. Gourmet Bakery & Cafe Of course the king of all Woodlands bakeries is a French bakery. Where to even begin with this family-run Woodlands treasure? It's no exaggeration that everything that involves flour at this recently redecorated place is incredibly tasty. Yes, everything. Ifel Costa, the owner, chef and head of the family that runs this shop, was trained at three different schools of culinary arts, including the prestigious Grands Moulins de Paris. Every mouthful of his gourmet goods reveals a thorough understanding of the craft, along with the passion that makes a good product a superb one.
Let's begin with perhaps the simplest and most well-known form of French-made bread: the baguette. Its crusty exterior is well-balanced by it soft, airy interior -- a marriage of textures that is enticing to the mouth. Moving along to another French bakery staple, the palmiers are out of this world. To begin with, at seven to eight inches in size, they are larger than the average palmier. They are thick, flaky and buttery and have an ethereal consistency; they pleasantly melt in your mouth.
On the matter of fruit tarts, Gourmet Bakery & Cafe's are so wonderful that they have been known to convert non-fruit tart-loving individuals like myself into fans. With a fresh-tasting crust, masterfully sweetened custard (not overly sweet -- an error many bakeries commit) and only the freshest fruit, the petite tarts are flawless.
But perhaps my favorite item at the eight-table cafe is the croissants. They are unspeakably good. So much so that I won't spoil the surprise -- just go and try them yourself.
Gourmet Bakery Cafe also offers omelets, croissant sandwiches, crepes, paninis and salads. But don't skip the sweet baked goods. They are the definition of joie de vivre, especially when they come from Gourmet Bakery & Cafe.
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