Hot Chocolate at Common Bond, Houston, USA

 

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Houston has been in need of a beautiful bakery for quite some time now, at least in my opinion. So when Common Bond finally opened a few weeks ago, we didn’t wait for an invite! On this corner in Houston there used to be an old historic house which housed an antique store. When the store burnt down over a year ago we wondered what would take its place and not surprisingly a very modern looking building popped up. Common Bond set up in the corner, and they’ve created a stunning space. It has incredibly high ceilings and windows that go from the floor all the way to the roof on three sides of the café. The whole space is filled with lots of seating and the baristas make your coffee (and hot chocolate) right in the middle. When you first enter you walk through a twisty line (often a very long line) to get to a never ending display case filled with rich and delicate looking desserts, chocolate cupcakes, multi-coloured macaroons, tiramisu and of course a selection of freshly made breads. While waiting in line you can watch bakers and pastry chefs doing their magic in the back.

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Montrose has no shortage of interesting and delicious spots to stop. In fact pretty much all of my favourite places to eat are along this road in Montrose and if you are a coffee lover this area is as far as you have to go. Now with the opening of Common Bond, this is definitely the area you want to be in for hot chocolates as well. Their hot chocolate is made from Valrhona Manjori, prepared by staff wearing white shirts, black aprons and white hats looking at cool as can be. This chocolate even though it is a dark, 64% cocoa tasted quite sweet and was very easy and enjoyable to drink. Paired with one of their many chocolate desserts it would be death by chocolate, a happy and colourful death by chocolate.

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Verdict: Glad to see Houston is slowly, but surely getting some good hot chocolate options. Common Bond is a stunning and happy place and you won’t be disappointed with their hot chocolate if you have a bit of a sweet tooth. Common Bond, 1706 Westheimer Rd, Houston, USA

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Hot Chocolate at the Rodeo, Houston, USA

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When March comes around, all everyone seems to be talking about in Houston is Rodeo. This makes sense of course because the rodeo in Houston is big, big like Texas, seriously big. When I first arrived in Houston I was disappointed that there weren’t any cowboy hats and cowboy boots to be seen on the streets, it just isn’t that kind of place despite its location. But one month a year everyone dusts off those boots and hats, puts them on and heads over to the Rodeo. In fact this year 2.48 million people attended the rodeo! Yup, they don’t do things small here.

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There is so much to the Houston Rodeo that it would just be impossible to fully describe it here. In one area you have the livestock shows happening during the day. Cows, pigs, goats all being brushed and prettied up and showed off. Sheep dogs compete to see who can round up 3 little sheep the fastest. In another corner several sheep, horses, cows and pigs are just about to or have just given birth surrounded by an audience of fascinated adults and children. There is a large area with stores to buy yourself a cowboy hat, boots, jackets. Outside are a selection of large tents are filled with food, in particular BBQ including giant turkey legs that look like they have come straight out of the Flintstones. Beyond that there is a large area with an amusement park that has almost every ride you can imagine. There is another arena with horse shows and races, and smaller one with little pigs racing around a track. Then of course there is the main attraction that starts every night at 6 pm and goes until late in the stadium, the rodeo itself. To start, there’s the nightly competition, which is a couple of hours of bareback riding, team roping, saddle bronc riding, steer wrestling, barrel racing and mutton bustin’ and then a concert to finish off the night. To top all of that off there are all the side events, a wine festival, a chili cook-off, trail rides, parades and the list goes on and on and on. There is really no shortage of things happening during rodeo time.

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So as this is a hot chocolate blog, I just had to find a hot chocolate so I could share the rodeo with you. Unfortunately, the one thing rodeo is not about is hot chocolate, and the one I found and bought was so absolutely disgusting that we didn’t even drink it, and the stall didn’t even have a name on it. To be honest I have no idea what was in the cup. But really people don’t go to the Rodeo to drink hot chocolate…unless they had some special Rodeo hot chocolates. BBQ hot chocolate, hot chocolate flavoured with BBQ ribs, or maybe even come with a little juicy rib to stir through it. Fried hot chocolate, Twinkie hot chocolate, the options are endless…very possibly all incredibly disgusting…but endless.

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Verdict: A million reasons to visit Houston Rodeo. Hot Chocolate isn’t one of them…but that’s ok. Houston Rodeo is a crazy thing. Houston Rodeo

 

Hot Chocolate at Southside Espresso, Houston, USA

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Houston has fallen in love for coffee and fallen hard. Not for watery, non descript coffee, for real coffee. I am indifferent, completely, but this has made my other half, who will (strangely) choose coffee over hot chocolate any day, very very happy. There have been several new and very good coffee shops open in Houston which we have been trying out one by one. The latest on our list has been Southside Espresso.

Southside is like a secret, but not a very well kept one…the steady stream of foot traffic going in and out of this tiny little coffee shop is proof that as much as we would like to keep this place a secret it is perhaps much too late. It is also perfectly located between Uchi (very good contemporary Japanese) and Little Bigs (incredible pulled pork sliders) to make it an important stop before or after lunch, dinner or anything really.

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Owner Sean Marshall opened this spot up late 2012 where he does his own roasting under the Fusion Beans brand. He also serves a wide selection of bottomless pots of loose leaf teas, a sommelier has chosen a selection of red, white and rose wines served by the glass and of course there’s some good ales on tap.

Inside it is tiny. Tiny, but full of good things. The beams in the ceiling have been painted with all sorts of colorful intricate designs. There is a cute terrace outside with a few tables and chairs. As with lots of good spots in Houston the tables are usually occupied by one or two students who seem to move in and stay for the whole day surfing the internet. Somehow though, our favorite table, the one just out front near the door, is always free when we visit.

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The other day we asked them how they make their hot chocolate, “ We make it in house, chocolate, a bit of vanilla and milk”. As we walked away he laughed and finishes up “ and plenty of sugar!”. He wasn’t joking. The hot chocolate at Southside is sweet, too sweet for me. But if you like your hot chocolate sweet, you will quickly become a fan of this little spot.

But I will never forget this hot chocolate, not for its flavor but because it is truly a work of art. The baristas always turn the milk and chocolate syrup into incredibly elaborate designs. I basically pay the price of the hot chocolate just to see what they will draw on it and am, understandably, disappointed the few times I just get plain froth. To see just some of their creations check out the pictures on their Facebook page.

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Verdict: I’m still in the search for some really good hot chocolates in Houston and am hoping some of the coffee shops that put so much time and effort into offering incredible coffee, tea, wine, beer will take up the challenge. Southside is close…maybe a bit less sugar? Southside, 904-C Westheimer, Houston, TX, USA

Hot Chocolate at Mercantile, Houston, USA

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Houston needs more areas like Rice Village, areas where you can park your car and walk around and have access to stores, bars, restaurants and cafes. I’ve always liked Rice Village but lately we have been visiting every Saturday morning early, and that reason is to visit Mercantile.

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We have been going to Mercantile since day one, since it was shiny and new. From the outside it didn’t look like much, in fact they still had the sign above the shop from the store that used to be in that space. Since then they have added some new signs and several spots to sit outside surrounded by some large potted plants. Very nice by Houston’s terrace standards.

The inside is one large room with an ordering counter and cash register right in the center. On the right side there’s a series of glass display plates covered with freshly baked goods from local Angie’s Bakery; the pain au chocolate and almond croissant are both surprisingly good and a necessary part of our weekend. On the left side of the counter sits a beautiful coffee machine. It is stunning and worth visiting Mercantile just to admire it from all angles.

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The rest of the space was and still is a little bit sparse, but we have been assured that this is just the start, that the space will soon be packed full with delicious goodies. All the food items they currently carry are from either fantastic companies or even better, fantastic local companies. They have cheeses from Houston Dairymaids (ohhh so good) and chocolate from Voges (see here for a review of their hot chocolate in New York). Apparently a wine and beer license is also on the way too, which will make this our definite go to spot.

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The hot chocolate here at Mercantile is pretty similar, if not exactly the same as the one from Catalina Coffee (same owners) I reviewed last year, but somehow I enjoy it more here, and that despite the fact that it is served in…oh the horror…a paper cup. Because they are operating under a grocery license at the moment, they’re only allowed to sell dairy products for take away, and that unfortunately includes my hot chocolate. But I don’t mind. It is beautifully creamy, the creamiest hot chocolate I think I have ever had. “It’s the milk” the barista told me the first day we went. The milk comes from Mill King, a family run farm in Waco Texas that produces low temperature pasturized non-homogenized milk from a range of happy, grass fed Holsteins, Brown Swiss and Jersey cows.

We have now been to Mercantile for a hot chocolate and almond croissant easily dozens of times. Every time they have different staff working. At this rate it will take over 100 visits before any of them notice we are regulars! Each one prepares my hot chocolate slightly differently too. Some will give it a quick squeeze of a magical homemade vanilla syrup they have, not a lot, but just enough to make a difference. Sometimes it has a bit more chocolate, other times a little less. The hot chocolate tastes best on a cool (by Houston standards) morning,  sitting outside on one of the chairs early before the Rice Village shoppers arrive.

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Verdict: Mercantile is a great little spot and I think once it is filled up a bit more and possibly maybe also has a few tables and chairs inside to enjoy drinks it will be full, all the time. My only request, maybe a second hot chocolate on the menu? A rich and chocolately one? Houston (and I) need that. Mercantile, 54-7 Morningside Dr, Houston, TX, USA

Hot Chocolate at Araya, Houston, USA

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There is this little chocolate shop called Araya which we pass by often, that  is right next to the gorgeous Art Deco River Oaks Cinema. When the cinema opened in November 1939 it showed a film called Bachelor Mother starring David Niven and Ginger Rogers. Tonight it is showing a midnight screening of The Rocky Horror Picture Show…how times have changed.

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But we weren’t here for a movie, we were here for Araya. Araya is a tiny little family owned and run chocolate shop. For how tiny it looks, one is surprised to find Araya chocolates sold in all sorts of shops around the city.  All their chocolates are handmade from scratch nearby in Katy using chocolate from fair trade Venezuelan El Rey couverture chocolate. Not only are the owners themselves from Venezuela but Araya is the name of a Venezuelan town that straddles the lush rainforest where many of South America’s finest cocoa beans are grown.

What is fantastic about Araya is that not only do their products taste amazing and combine dark, bitter chocolates with a whole range of interesting flavours (36 in all, click here to drool at the pictures), or the fact that they don’t use any sugar to sweeten their chocolate (just honey), but that they play with colours and graphic designs when creating their chocolates.

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When a chocolate shop has chairs and tables inside and/or outside, as Araya did, to me this is usually a sign that they make a hot chocolate. Although they don’t advertise that they make a hot chocolate, theirs is the best kept secret in Houston.. Turns out that Araya makes one of my favourite hot chocolates. It is absolutely beautiful, made to order with melted dark chocolate. It is rich and creamy, but somehow still light and has this wonderful bitter spiciness to it.

If that wasn’t enough to make you an Araya addict, to accompany your hot chocolate we were presented with a small silver platter with a small jar of mini marshmellows and a few glass shakers with cinnamon, nutmeg, and chipotle chili.  These added sprinkles take the hot chocolate to a whole different level. Every sip becomes a different mini journey, and all this for just $3.50!

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Now there is one caveat to this review. It really depends who makes the hot chocolate. The best hot chocolates are made by the friendly young woman with the long brown hair who is often there on the weekend. It is a lot of little things that makes the difference. The way she makes them they are richer, more chocolatey, and above all, hotter temperature wise. She melts the chocolate more thoroughly and just takes her time and makes it with care – you can taste the difference.

Araya has plans to soon sell their hot chocolate so that you can make it at home, but I say why make it at home when you can have it there, surrounded by all of their beautiful and colourful chocolates. The staff are fantastic too and always make us feel like this is our new home. The only thing I think they could do to make this even better would be to offer one of their freshly made marshmellows which they sell in the store with the hot chocolates. Then I’d just have to move in.

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Verdict: As you can guess, I’m a big fan of Araya. If you are in Houston and you appreciate a good hot chocolate, this is where you should be. Araya Chocolate, 2013 W Gray St. Houston, Texas, USA.

Araya Artisan Chocolate on Urbanspoon

Hot Chocolate at Hugo’s, Houston, USA

Hot Chocolate at Hugo’s, Houston, USA

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We have started a tradition of lunches at popular restaurants in central Houston.  This week we made a reservation at Hugo’s in the Montrose area.  It on every list of must eats for the city and is said to have exciting authentic (albeit a bit pricey) Mexican food.  I have been wanting to go to Hugo’s since I first came to Houston for another reason however, their hot chocolate.

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Years ago I read an article about the hot chocolate at Hugo’s.  The hot chocolate, made in house, is a traditional Mexican hot chocolate with a hint of different spices.  It comes with freshly made warm churros, perfect for dipping.  It is roasted in house which is something I haven’t heard of often.  So finally after putting it off for two years, today was the day that not only would I get to taste their authentic Mexican food, but have my hot chocolate and churros.

Hugo’s which opened in 2002 is housed in a 1925 structure that was designed and built by well-known Houston architect, Joseph Finger.  The interior was redesigned to house the restaurant. It is a fascinating mix of traditional and modern.  The yellow high chairs feel like thrones.  Bright blue water glasses sit on all the tables.  We went there one week before Halloween, so there were decorations all around the restaurant. Colourful skeletons are hanging from the chandeliers.

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Hugo’s is named after Hugo Ortega, who’s a bit of a superstar in Houston..  He is executive chef and co owner of both Hugo’s and Backstreet Café (another place I need to visit soon), and was a finalist for the 2012 and 2013 James Beard Foundation Awards.  He was born one of 8 children in Mexico City and immigrated to the US where he started working in Houston as a dishwasher.  He was rapidly promoted from dishwasher to line cook and after graduating from a Culinary Arts programme he became a chef.  Just recently I saw a copy of his first cookbook, Street Food of Mexico, which he wrote with his brother who is executive pastry chef for both restaurants.  He also works with his wife who is co-owner of both restaurants so this is a family affair.

Our meal was beautiful, not much different than food I have had in Mexico (which was fantastic).  We had snapper ceviche to start.  We just had to follow that with a plate of pan-fried grasshoppers (yes, grasshopper, little crunchy ones served with avocado, salsa and tortillas). It isn’t often you see something like that on a menu so when you do it has to be tried.  Those little bugs didn’t taste like much on their own, but rolled up in the tortilla with the toppings it was nicely crunchy and quite tasty. We followed with mains of roasted goat with plantains and mole and all sorts of other delicious things.

All this though was just to prepare my stomach for my hot chocolate.  The dessert menu presented me with a few options.  The first one I saw was a hot chocolate with alcohol.  I have done that before (in Brazil) and enjoyed it a little too much.  Maybe not for lunch.  There was a plate of churros and hot chocolate with ice cream and then there was just a simple hot chocolate.

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I’m not sure what happened at that moment.  All the excitement, the anticipation must have got to me because for some odd reason I didn’t order the churros.  I think I got distracted by the ice cream.  I was confused as to why they would have churros with hot chocolate…and then ice cream.  I didn’t want ice cream.  So I found myself asking for the hot chocolate only and a plate of their chilli chocolate cake to share (which was incredible).

I can’t say I wasn’t a little disappointed when my hot chocolate arrived.  I think I was expecting something thick and gooey. Instead what arrived in a white mug was the milk and shaved chocolate kind of hot chocolate. Maybe you only get the thick hot chocolate if you are smart enough to order the churros as well (which, I was not), or maybe they don’t have that at all and I am just imagining thick gooey hot chocolate with Churros.  I pouted for a minute, long enough for the hot chocolate in front of me to cool down to lukewarm.  But when I finally did take a sip it was a very good hot chocolate which I enjoyed.  It had those interesting and complex notes that Mexican hot chocolates seem to always have which are so addictive; a hint of cinnamon and a bit of a kick at the end.

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Verdict: Very nice hot chocolate, and I will be back to Hugo’s to try the churros. Stay tuned for more… Hugo’s, 1600 Westheimer Houston, 77006, Houston, USA

Hugo's on Urbanspoon

Hot Chocolate at Tiny Boxwoods, Houston, USA

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Tiny Boxwoods is like a little hidden world right in the middle of busy Houston. You don’t know it is there until you are in it and once inside you can’t imagine what the world outside looks like.  Tiny’s, despite what its name may suggests, spans a whole city block. On the right side of the block is a little store that sells lovely decorations for the homeowner who already has everything. This store is surrounded by a beautiful garden shop selling multicolored flowers, a range of herbs, larger pots with olive plants and small palm trees and all the pots you could ever need. Next to this is a little square of very green grass leading right up to Tiny Boxwood’s itself. This little café has quite a bit of seating outside including some very large tables for big families.

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Inside though is my favourite. It is bright and cheery. Today there was some French café music which made me miss Paris. The walls and furniture are different shades of beige with green accents. Around the cash register you are easily tempted by a range of freshly baked pastries at this hour of the morning (and incredible chocolate chip cookies if you come later in the day).  We ordered a hot chocolate, of course, and went to sit at one of the tables near the window where we had a view of everything happening in this relatively small space.

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It took a while but my hot chocolate finally arrived and in what I like to call a hug mug, one of those big mugs that just seems to give you a big hug as you drink from it. This one was white and warmed my hands and made me happy. Unfortunately, as so often happens at places that I love, I didn’t stay happy for very long. The hot chocolate was very plain and very sweet, I suspect a chocolate syrup stirred in milk. I only had a few sips and spend the rest of the morning enjoying the mug instead and using it to warm my hands. It is always so sad for me to review hot chocolates at spots that I love that seem to put a lot of attention into every detail, and then have a very disappointing hot chocolate…high expectations and all. But Rich loved his latte and everything else looks fantastic at Tiny’s…oh well.

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Verdict: If you are in Houston I would recommend a relaxing stop at Tiny Boxwoods but skip the hot chocolate. I do however highly recommend the hug mug so ask for another drink (a latte perhaps) in the mug so you can enjoy that! Tiny Boxwoods, 3614 W Alabama St. Houston, USA

Tiny Boxwood's Cafe on Urbanspoon

Hot Chocolate from Taza Chocolates (made at home), USA

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A few weeks ago, Merrill, a friend and fan of hot chocolate (smart girl), sent me a little package. Inside was a sampler pack of 4 Taza hot chocolates. Since then I have been anxiously waiting for the perfect day to try this out.  I have seen Taza hot chocolate sold at my local cheese store, and since I love everything that store sells, I figured there was a reason that they sold Taza hot chocolate. It must be good.

Today turned out to be the perfect day to try this out. Rich got home early and with the change in time it was still light outside. With the sun shining on the balcony and the temperature cool enough to enjoy a hot drink, we decided that this was the day. It took a while to decide which flavours to choose. My little sampler pack included three disks of flavoured chocolate; vanilla (50% dark), cinnamon (50% dark) and chilli (50% dark), with the last one just good old dark chocolate (70% dark). Today we settled on cinnamon and chilli.

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The packaging provides easy to follow instructions on how to create the hot chocolate. One cup of milk heated up, take it off the heat and add the chopped up chocolate. Mix until dissolved and then heat up again. Add a little pinch of salt and you are ready to enjoy it. We used my favourite hot chocolate testing mugs and brought them out to the balcony to drink.

I love what this company has done with its chocolate, from the marketing and branding to their sustainability angle. Everything is organic: the coco beans, the cane sugar, the vanilla beans, cinnamon and even the chilli powder. The cocoa is sourced directly from growers who are paid a fair price. The packaging is full of interesting tid bits. Apparently the company uses Oaxacan stone mills instead of steel refiners to grind their cocoa in small batches resulting in a unique texture and robust flavour. I love the brown packaging and the fonts used. I hadn’t even tasted the hot chocolae and I was a fan. How can this be bad…really?

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It wasn’t bad, in fact, it was fantastic! I really loved these hot chocolates and couldn’t find anything to fault. Rich had the chilli which had just the right amount of kick, while I had the cinnamon which was beautiful and rich. They were both silky and very easy to drink, and the flavour was a perfect balance, bitter but not too much and enough sweetness to satisfy a sweet palate.

Even after finishing my hot chocolate my newfound obsession with Taza continues. I spent quite a bit of time going through their website. They have factory tours in Somersville MA if anyone is over there, where they show you how they make their chocolate. They even organize a chocolate tour to Belize regularly.  All of their chocolates have a batch number on the packaging that you can enter into the site to learn more about your particular chocolate. They use bicycle couriers to deliver their chocolate locally and have really made sustainability part of their whole operations. Alex, Kathleen and Larry, the founders of Taza, basically created the hot chocolate company that I would have liked to create myself … which is good because that means that instead of starting a hot chocolate company, I can dedicate my time to drinking hot chocolates and tell you about them! Thank you for that.

And thank you Merrill! You can send me hot chocolate any day…really.

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Verdict: I really loved Taza hot chocolate disks, as you can probably tell. I can see this will turn into a guilty pleasure for me. Since writing this blog I have tried almost all the Taza flavourites and they are all fantastic! Taza Chocolate,