Killen's Burgers has burgers. Killen's Barbecue has barbecue. And Killen's Steakhouse has, well, you get the picture. But not the whole picture. Not when Samantha Mendoza is plying her dark, melting trade. The restaurant's pastry chef, a brand-new mom, is currently on maternity leave, but we watched her make her signature chocolate truffles before she took off. And good news: There's still plenty of chocolate to go around.
The pâtissière first gained notice in her four years at the recently shuttered Triniti. That's also where she says chef Ryan Hildebrandt encouraged her to gain knowledge in chocolate work. It took her a year to get the sweets in a state that satisfied her. "It's a challenge in Houston," she says of the humid climate—the natural enemy to a dessert that we love because it melts readily. She got lucky at Killen's: Co-owner and beverage director Deanna Killen keeps the wine room at 60 degrees—perfect for storing chocolates.
Mendoza says that she learned basic chocolate and bonbon skills in culinary school, but has had to supplement her knowledge and autodidacticism with classes at schools that specialize in chocolate. "Now everyone is taking it to the next level, mixing their own colors, mixing their own flavors,"she says. Back when she finished culinary school in the dark ages of 2009, "People were doing strawberry. Now they're doing balsamic and olive oil."
She mixes colors from a wide palette of cocoa butters from Chef Rubber. Some flavors come from liqueurs, others fresh fruits or crumbled sweets. Among her favorites is little used and little known Guyanese tonka bean, so aromatic that its Latin name is dipteryx odorata. If you think of it as a smokier, spicier vanilla, you'll be about half right. You just have to try it. A strawberry flavor uses fresh strawberry purée.
But Mendoza says the chocolates that make her happiest are the ones that harken back to her childhood. Dulce de leche, for example, or dark chocolate with cinnamon that reminds her of Mexican hot chocolate.
When Mendoza makes a batch, she does about 80 of each flavor, most of which end up on a combination plate for dessert with six to eight pieces. During the holidays, truffles are advertised by the box, but that doesn't mean in-the-know sweet lovers can't get them at any old time. Just don't get too greedy: Don't forget, the supply is limited until Mendoza returns from maternity leave.