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 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 at Ziggy’s, Houston, USA

There are a lot of bad hot chocolates in the world. It is unfortunate but true. One of the missions of UltimateHotChocolate is not just to celebrate the good ones but to point out the bad ones too in the hope that they will be improved (or that you will stay clear of them). Just trying to make the world better, one hot chocolate at a time.

This brings me to Ziggy’s. I debated for a few days whether to write this review (and then a few more weeks whether to post it.) The reason? The hot chocolate at Ziggy’s was hands down the worst hot chocolate I have ever had in my life. And this wasn’t just me, I was with others who all tasted my drink and agreed. What made it worse was that Ziggy’s had everything going for it.

Ziggy’s is situated in a gorgeous old house on a quiet corner. It feels like it is in its own little village even though you are in the middle of trendy Montrose. Across the street is a beautiful antique store, down the road an art gallery and independent bicycle store. The terrace outside is one of the cutest anywhere filled with little black cast iron tables and chairs.  The bushes around the house are covered in yellow flowers and purples ones hang from the branches of the trees above.

The menu said hot chocolate with homemade marshmallows. I smiled, this is a good sign. You wouldn’t put good marshmallows on bad hot chocolate right? So I order one.

It was all a little strange and surreal what happened next. The waiter comes out with a tall glass (blah) of yellowish brown liquid filled to the top. He then rushes off, I assume to grab my homemade marshmallow which he has forgotten. I take a sip. I still don’t understand what happened to this drink, I wish I did. It didn’t taste like chocolate at all. It kind of tasted like soy milk that had gone slightly off maybe? The waiter comes back, no marshmallows. “I have two questions” I ask with a smile, “Doesn’t this come with a marshmallow?” I show him the menu, he looks at me confused, “hmm you can have whipped cream, would you like whipped cream?” Second question I asked, “what kind of chocolate is this?”, “Its coco powder and milk” he replies …..

I must have had a stunned look on my face (and he must have noticed my untouched glass) as 5 minutes later he brought me a new glass filled with the same liquid but this time beautifully topped with whipping cream and a homemade marshmallow. The whipping cream was perfect, fresh and light, just slightly sweet. The marshmallow was fantastic, the best I have had, light, not too sweet, nice texture. The hot chocolate…same taste as before but this time it had a slightly burnt taste. I asked the waiter (who by now thought I was crazy), whether it was soy milk. He said no so I’m confused. This hot chocolate, as beautiful as it looked, was completely undrinkable. Was it just mine (both of them?)? or perhaps no one every orders it so no one knows, or maybe this is what I get for ordering a hot chocolate when its 34 degrees Celsius outside?

A power pole across the street started sparking and caught fire for a few minutes. It was followed by fire trucks and apparently blackouts around the area. But this all happened while we were sitting there, so unless electrical fires affect milk quality on a 100 metre radius, I’m still at a loss to explain what happened to my hot chocolate?

This experience has inspired me to start the Hot Chocolate Appreciate Society, or League for the protection of good hot chocolate (name to be confirmed). If you have had a bad hot chocolate, or a good one of course, let me know on my facebook page. Just trying to make the world a better place, one hot chocolate at a time.

Verdict: I love Ziggy’s and its cute little terrace. It transports you into another, very happy world.But I won’t be back for the hot chocolate. Ziggy’s, 302 Fairview, Houston, USA

Ziggy's Bar and Grill on Urbanspoon

Hot Chocolate at Catalina, Houston, USA

If you love and appreciate your coffee and you live in Houston, then you’ll probably know Catalina’s Coffee Shop. I know people who wouldn’t spend money on a coffee anywhere else. The whole place is a charming little ode to coffee. They will prepare it for you in a whole range of different ways, french press, aeropress, HarioV60, vacuum pot, coffee dripper or iced coffee via chemex.

If only I could find a place that loved and appreciated the cocoa bean in the same way Catalina handles their coffee beans. I would be one happy girl.

Considering its coffee reputation I didn’t expect much for the hot chocolate. I used to think that if a shop respected one food or drink group so much then they would have the same respect for everything they served in the shop. Consistently this has proven to be a false assumption, unfortunately, in particular in the city of Houston strangely enough. But regardless of what you choose to drink at Catalina it is really a great little spot. Located down Washington street, right next to a pub and a Pilates studio, it is pretty small but full of character. I love the walls the most, exposed red brick with patches of aqua blue. The exposed beams on the ceiling have funky little industrial lights hanging and the walls are covered with interesting photos (the artist came and took them down while we were sitting there so when you visit next there will be something different to admire on the walls).

There is a constant stream of people coming in and, unlike many other coffee shops, most of them actually sit down and enjoy their coffee on one of the many little wooden tables and chairs. No one here is in a rush, everyone looks interesting. The music made it feel a bit like a trendy loungy club and was just loud enough so that as much as I tried I couldn’t eavesdrop on the conversations all these interesting looking people were having. There is also one comfy sofa in the corner; if you can grab that do.

So about the hot chocolate …. well, it wasn’t so fantastic but I’m fine with that now. Maybe I shouldn’t be visiting specialised coffee shops and expecting a great hot chocolate….but still, I think they could have done better. The hot chocolate had a fun design made of sweet chocolate syrup on top and I’m pretty sure that the hot chocolate itself was made from that same syrup. Luckily they didn’t put much into it so it just tasted like warm milk with a hint of sweet chocolate. I hardly remember it anymore, it wasn’t very memorable, but Catalina’s is and I’d indulge my coffee drinker friends and come back for a non coffee drink anytime just to have the chance to hang out here. Maybe it will turn me to coffee….. don’t think so.

Verdict: The hot chocolate was ok, I’d have it again, but Catalina’s is all about coffee and that’sfine because they do that well and I can appreciate that. Catalina, 2201 Washington Avenue, Houston, USA

Catalina Coffee Shop on Urbanspoon