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Brisket and jalapenño kolaches at Peña’s Donut Heaven

“Listen, I wanted to ask you about this thing I’ve been reading about online,” said a man on the other end of the phone, who happened to be a producer for Bizarre Foods on the Travel Channel. “Is it pronounced ko-lah-shez or coal-akes?”

The line went silent. I had no idea what he was talking about. Then it hit me. “Do you mean kolaches?” 

“Is that how they’re pronounced?” laughed the producer.

“Wait,” I replied. “Y’all have never heard of kolaches in Chicago?”

My Texas provincialism hadn’t been so prominently displayed since the time I’d ordered a Dr Pepper in New York City in the early ’90s, only to be met with a blank, annoyed stare from a waitress who’d never heard of the stuff. Since then, New York has gratefully received both Dr Pepper and kolaches. Indeed, a recent New York Times article about the latter was rhapsodic, breathless, unprecedented. Actually, there was precedent. In 2010, the Gray Lady had encountered breakfast tacos for the first time and promptly lost her mind. “Tacos in the Morning?” screamed the incredulous headline.

Texans can’t claim to have invented the kolache—a term we use to describe sweet yeast rolls either filled with fruit or wrapped around sausages, although the latter are technically klobasniky. But we—or rather the Czechs who settled here in the 1800s—may well have perfected it. Houston’s domination over the kolache landscape, meanwhile, dates back to at least 1982, when John and Jerri Banks opened the first Kolache Factory here in town; today, it counts 42 locations in Houston proper, with others as far away as Indianapolis and St. Louis.

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Fruit-filled kolaches at Kolache Shoppe

One wonders how long we will retain that title, however, now that kolache fever is going global. After all, no less a tastemaker than Bon Appétit has pronounced the kolache one of 2015’s great foods. Calling it “the one baked good I’ll stand in line for,” BA’s Andrew Knowlton told readers that whenever he visits the Bayou City, he never fails to “grab a few stuffed with things like jalapeño, cheese, and sausage.” 

These days, Washington, DC, New York and other cities are opening acclaimed kolache shops of their own, although it’s unlikely that the fan bases in those cities will ever hold a candle to ours, where folks happily queue around the block for Revival Market’s occasional kolache Saturdays (usually announced the week before via Twitter and Facebook), or where a Pearland donut shop’s kolache stuffed with smoked beef brisket makes news headlines across the city. (Sadly, the so-called Kill-ache kolache at Peña’s Donut Heaven, filled with barbecue from Killen’s, was a limited-edition model. Still, consider the fact that there is such a thing as a limited-edition kolache. What a time to be alive.)

And we don’t just stuff our breakfast pastries with brisket. Thanks to its boudin kolaches, the Shipley Do-nuts on North Main—one of the oldest Shipley locations in Houston—draws crowds every Saturday and Sunday morning. At the Kolache Shoppe on Richmond Ave., you’ll find kolaches made with both brisket (from Hinze’s BBQ in Wharton) and boudin (from Hebert’s, the Cajun specialty butcher just down the street), as well as venison and pork sausage from Junior’s Smokehouse, and chicken-apple sausage. Where do they get the latter?

“From the Costco across the street,” laughs owner Randy Hines, who purchased the Kolache Shoppe from its original owner, Erwin Ahrens, last year. Hines still uses Ahren’s famous sweet yeast dough, which dates back to the store’s founding in 1970, but he doesn’t just use old-school fillings like apricot and poppyseed. These days, the dimples of their kolaches are filled with Underbelly’s ginger marmalade or bourbon cajeta made with goat’s milk from Blue Heron Farm, just northwest of Houston.

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Randy and Lucy Hines of Kolache Shoppe

“What the kolache has going for it is that it’s both old and new,” says Hines. “It offers the comfort of your grandmother, the time taken to make the dough, knead the dough, let it rise, shape the dough, let it rise again, fill the dough and let it rise again and then bake it….But it’s also new in that it’s versatile, meaning it can be filled with any number of things.”

Hines comes by his kolache affection honestly, having grown up in the Czech Belt of Texas (a.k.a. the Oompah Belt) that stretches from Victoria to El Campo through the central part of the state and up to West, Texas, a modern Czech stronghold. (In April 2013, Revival baked a special batch of strawberry cream kolaches and another with caramel apple and miso butterscotch, donating proceeds from their sale to victims of West’s deadly fertilizer plant explosion.) 

“The act of purchasing kolaches in West is a rite of passage for Dallasites headed to Austin,” says Scott Reitz, food critic at the Dallas Observer. Still, the kolache has never really caught on in Dallas proper, nor in Austin, despite the city’s location in the epicenter of Czech-dominated Central Texas.

“Breakfast tacos are definitely king here—kolaches, not so much,” says Jolene Bouchon, food critic for Austin Monthly. “Personally, I think of them more as road trip food, as does my husband, who grew up here.” And as for San Antonio? Forget about it, says Edmund Tijerina, food writer for the San Antonio Express-News. “We have a few places that specialize in them and they do good business, but people don't line up for them like they do in Houston.”

Back home in the Bayou City, kolaches account for 30 percent of total sales at Shipley Donuts, according to company spokeswoman Stacey Michel. Plain glazed donuts are the No. 1 item, followed by chocolate iced donuts—both of which are made from the same base mix as the kolache dough. (“It tastes a lot different fried and glazed than it does baked and stuffed with sausage,” Michel chuckles.) Elsewhere, you can find mid-century-inspired roast beef and cheese in sweet yeast dough at The Original Kolache Shoppe (est. 1956) or a health-conscious spinach and feta in whole wheat dough at River Oaks Donuts (est. 2013). Old Towne Kitchen offers a similar mix of new and old, with apricot and poppyseed keeping company in its glass cases alongside chicken and beef fajita–stuffed kolaches.

Wherefore the kolache’s enduring and ever-growing reputation? Hines believes it’s due to the pastry’s deep connection to a past that all of us share, Czech or not. “The Czech population has played a large role in keeping the kolache alive and passing it on to their families,” he says. But it’s Houston that “has become a beautiful bouquet of people searching and finding the true, good and beautiful in the food community. Houston is making its way on the road to bringing us all back to our roots.”

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