Like myself, there are thousands of native Louisianians disguised as Houstonians and with Mardi Gras in the air and gray skies above you can count on an almost Pavlovian reaction to occur this time of year: We want our king cake.
If you don't hail from a state over, your only king cake experience may be the knock-off, cardboard-tasting versions found at local grocery stores. Our dining editor, Katharine Shilcutt, got her first taste of decent—just decent!—authentic Louisiana version this week and could hardly believe the difference. It's true: here’s nothing quite like an original.
We know you’ve got New Year’s resolutions to uphold, but these cinnamon braided pastries with glazed icing sprinkled with traditional Mardi Gras-colored sugar are well worth the calories. Just be careful: if your piece has the small plastic baby inserted into each cake, you might be on the hook to buy another one. As addictive as king cakes can be, that’s not necessarily a bad thing.
Here’s where you can find these delights in true Louisiana form—or at least close enough—in the Houston area.
This gourmet Montrose bakery is renowned internationally, but it does everything so well and has for 35 years. It’s no surprise then that king cakes are no exception, since owner Sandi Bubbert got the recipe from her grandmother, who hailed from St. Martinville in prime Acadian country in Louisiana. These cakes weigh about three pounds, with colored icing and none of the sugar sprinkles on top. But the key is layer upon layer of butter to soften the pastry beneath the French buttercream icing. This is the upscale, but authentic, version of a populist treat. Just give them at least 24 hours notice.
This Heights seasonal spot is a treasure trove of Louisiana delights. The owners were born and raised in Louisiana, and they've made The Boil House a destination where you can satisfy every Louisiana craving you may have. Aside from king cake, there’s boiled crawfish, boudin empanadas, and even pralines. What makes their king cake offering delightful is its origins. The Boil House brings them in from Gambino’s Bakery, a New Orleans staple this time of year. Billed as the “King of King Cakes,” these are dripping with icing and slathered in cinnamon. Make sure to call ahead and reserve one, because this is truly going straight to the source.
Though the bakery has several locations in Beaumont, Houstonia only has one: up in Spring. If you don't want to make the trip, Rao's ships their king cakes in packages that include three strands of Mardi Gras beads and pamphlets with the history of Mardi Gras. Beware, however, since the shipping makes these a more expensive proposition at approximately $45 each. However, the flavor options are diverse, with praline, blueberry, raspberry, voodoo (chocolate and coconut), and even apple king cakes available. The ones at the Spring location are cheaper and also notoriously fresh, meaning the dough is soft and the icing still creamy.
This is your best bet for a wild variety of king cake styles. At the trio of Houston-area Three Brothers locations, you can obtain oval or circle king cakes (8 to 10 inches in diameter), Mardi Gras cupcakes, petit fours, and even king-cake themed sheet cakes. For a fifth-generation Houstonian bakery, its ability to faithfully replicate the classic Louisiana taste is impressive. The cakes are even non-dairy (except for the cream cheese ones) and coated with sanding sugar, just like they do in Louisiana.
Other local options include La Madeleine, Whole Foods, H-E-B, but you can always get your king cake shipped direct from New Orleans institutions like Gambino’s, Manny Randazzo’s, and Haydel’s. However, I'd always recommend you find them as fresh as possible, be it for your office, a carnival party, or your family. There's no better way to celebrate Mardi Gras outside of New Orleans.