Every Friday I work, I play a little game of Kolache Roulette. Playing Kolache Roulette is a bit like playing The Game; there are rarely winners, and simply to play is, essentially, to lose. Kolache Roulette is sponsored by our superiors, who are genuinely trying to do us a small kindness by way of a ritual Friday pastry offering. Unfortunately, the kolaches brought in are uniformly terrible. I find that to be the case with most kolaches in Houston, but these are special cases.
The worst of these are medium-size domed numbers, all anonymous and threateningly pale and pasty. Somehow, these always wind up being all that's left by the time I get to the kolaches. You pick one at random, praying for cream cheese, bacon and jalapeño, or at least not for that weird ham and cheese one. Regardless, you lose.
The other day, I played a different kind of Kolache Roulette, picking up a handful of varieties from a shoppe I'd never visited. Of course, plenty of other people have, and most of them have had good things to say. I'd recently learned that the shoppe is run by a former classmate of mine, Lucy Coles Hines, and her husband, Randy Hines. They've been running the shop for a couple of years now, though it's been around more than 40. I figured that, between the old school connection (I probably haven't seen Lucy in more than 20 years) and the bits of positive buzz I'd heard, there was a good chance I'd miss the one in the chamber. Or find live fire. I'm not sure which direction that conceit runs when winning Kolache Roulette.
I pulled into the lot a little after 8 a.m. midweek, after dropping my kids off at school down the road. The shop was empty and peaceful, its bounty of pale-golden, glistening pastries laid out in glass front cases. A chalkboard on the right describes the offerings, or you can peruse the shelf cards to figure out what's what. There's a strong focus on local and regional products, with klobasniky featuring smoked brisket from perennial farmers' market favorite Greatful Bread, boudin from Hebert's and sausage from Junior's smokehouse in Wharton. There are, of course, fruit kolaches as well.
What really separates a good kolache from the doughy monstrosities handed through drive-through windows across the city is the pastry itself. Most places foist heavy, bready, thick and listless specimens on unknowing or uncaring customers. I've seen many a kolache eater engage in a disturbing excavation prior to eating a kolache, mountain-top-removing the bulk of the stodgy dough-tube just to get closer to a more palatable texture and ratio of dough: fillings. Not so at Kolache Shoppe.
Here, the pastry is gently sweet and alluringly buttery, with a pleasant yeasty lilt. It's soft and delicate, airy, almost, not dense and bready. There's the slightest bit of rich crackle to the tops, a sign of a buttery baste, giving way to that mouth-filling yeasty sweetness. This is easily among the best commercially made kolaches I've had in Houston, judged on the quality of the pastry itself.
Of course, kolaches and klobasniky aren't to be judged solely on pastry, even if that is the most important element. If the fillings flattened those buttery sweet pillows, things would shift decidedly. Fortunately, the fillings are well chosen, well executed and (this is key) well proportioned. While there were a few blips in terms of quality and overall construction, they all held their own quite capably. Since I'm typing this in the semi-stupor of having just consumed an indelicate quantity of kolaches, I'm going to give you my tasting notes in their raw, unadorned form. I trust you understand.
Boudin: light, mildly spicy, nice bloom of livery funk. Works really well with the tender, fluffy pastry.
Brisket: is not as fatty-lush as I'd like. Still, with the sweet and smoky sauce, it works nicely as a filling. Plenty of it, too. Bread : filing ratio mars a lot of lesser kolaches. Of course, a lot of that has to do with the bread being dense, dry and tough, which is definitely not the case here. The jalapeño version doesn't shift things much, but the pickled, prickly heat plays nicely with the sweetish sauce.
Venison sausage jalapeño and cheese: Coarse-ground sausage winds up just a hair dry, but the pastry helps balance that out. Good flavor. Doesn't shy from the venison. Spicy from both jalapeño and a good, mouth-warming dose of what I'm thinking is black pepper (?) in the sausage itself.
Lemon: Has bright fruit flavor, but leans just a hair sweet. Not sure I like the cream cheese undercarriage. Would like more acid, less sugar. Also, a bit of lemony reinforcement from fine grated zest would be a nice touch.
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Mango strawberry: Doesn't taste like mango. Overwhelming, overly sweet strawberry jam. Cloying. This is strawberry season in Texas; a fresher take would be nice. Glaze a bit heavy.
Nutella: Took me by surprise. I figured it would be too sweet by far, but it somehow manages to tilt toward rich nuttiness. Just enough of the spread to feel like a guilty pleasure, not enough to make it feel gluttonous.
Poppy seed: Disappointed. Too high a crown for the thin band of snappy black paste. Also, a sort of stale, dusty quality to the seeds. A surprise, as freshness shines in pretty much everything at Kolache Shoppe.
While not everything thrilled me, many things did. Also, I did try a lot of kolaches, spread over a good array of fillings and styles, and found plenty to like. It's worth noting, too, that when I picked these up, they had already cooled from the oven. That means they were already past their peak (don't get me started on the crime of reheating kolaches), yet held up very, very well. I imagine that, fresh from the oven, they would shine even more. I can just imagine biting through that tender, buttery top, a puff of yeast-scented steam wafting into every nook and cranny of my olfactory apparatus, that gentle sweetness melting onto my tongue as the airy pastry gives way to gentle pressure...
Sorry. I needed a moment. The takeaway here is this: Kolaches are a wonderful, wonderful traditional/regional food, and should be treated with respect. Kolache Shoppe understands this. I lived the first 11 years of my life not knowing kolaches existed, and I've spent too many Fridays eating sad imitations. No more. I'm done with the cheap, empty thrills of Kolache Roulette. Death to false kolaches.