In 2014, ex-Bon Appétit editor Andrew Knowlton predicted that “the kolache craze” would soon take the food world by storm and that it would quickly swoop past the cronut’s place as indelible pastry phenomena. He wasn’t the first to bank big on the fist-sized buns, a Texas-fried take on a Czech dessert dish called kolach. In 2009, a consortium of Houston investors announced plans to open no fewer than 50 locations of a chain called Kolache Mama in cities across the country, starting right outside the Roosevelt Hotel in Manhattan. Despite allegedly attracting the patronage of Henry Kissinger, the prospective chain would not outlive the ghoulish, pastry-eating war criminal and instead shuttered a year later.
And yet, the kolache persists. It persists at road stops along the Texas highway, where it can be found stuffed with sausage and American cheese at places like the Czech Stop, a success story out of the state’s Czech belt that a magazine like Southern Living advertises as “the best kolache in Texas.” It’s a place that inspires Sarah Morgan Ashey, who recently opened a kolache location with her husband Paul called Kings Kolache at Bushwick’s everchanging 321 Starr Street plaza. There, kolaches can be found on a short but confident menu, made with buns that are fluffy and ever so lightly sweet. The big hit are the jalapeno-powered sausage and cheese kolaches: the buns come dotted with sesame seeds that look just like miniature candy burgers.
Researching kolaches on the internet, you find out some things and then you find them out again and again. For instance, savoury kolaches are a creation purely of the Texas prairie, the land of ribs and BBQ. The kolach, on the other hand, is generally sweet and filled with a rich cheese or jelly from the top instead of stuffed. When the Times reported on the simmering trend in 2013, the paper testified that “the pastry seems to be having something of an identity crisis,” that involved some bakeries insisting “on using the traditional term klobasniky” to describe kolaches that weren’t kolachs.
The Texas take is closer, in spirit, to an empanada: a compact ring-box of a pastry that delivers flavor in punches and can be eaten in a car. Paul is the pair’s primary Texas expatriate — they met getting theater degrees at Sewanee, a college in Tennessee, and both ended up in New York. “Some of the kolaches that I really liked down there were straight up squeeze-cheese and hot dogs,” he says, before adding that his take is a bit more refined: the sausage is imported from a smokehouse he’s fond of in Elgin, Texas and the jalapenos are candied.
“Sometimes when we’re developing a flavor that’s new, we think: is this authentic? Is this something that would be welcome at the Czech Stop?,” Ashey says. Over the phone, her voice bubbles sincerely. It’s an important subject and the connection to the Texas roadside weighs heavy on both of their minds. “We didn’t want to overly-New York-ify it,” she adds. (And for good reason: the doomed Kolache Mama, for instance, had gone for ostensibly ‘local’ flavors like pizza and reuben.) But their more original creations also impress. In addition to a more authentically Czech blueberry and sweet cheese, their sweet menu occasionally features a kolache drowning in a spoonful of Nutella and a single, thick banana slice.
The kolaches themselves come in handsome white boxes, stamped with their logo: the all-caps and lack of an apostrophe gives the font the droll seriousness of a gas station, a deliberate aesthetic choice. Appearing in one of the internet’s hundreds of pieces of evergreen content on the subject of kolaches (“Kolaches Are the Pinnacle of Carb Perfection” on chowhound.com), they had first proclaimed their intention to build “a Texas-style gas station in Bushwick.” In addition to the kolaches and the curious alternative of tacos — surprisingly crisp!— the menu is complemented with a miniature grocery store of items meant to bring to mind the long highways of the lonestar state: Whataburger-branded ketchup, BBQ sauce imported from Salt Lick, a Driftwood, Texas-based chain.
Before landing on Starr Street, their kolaches led a more itinerant life. Paul had landed a job managing a now-shuttered Park Slope bar called the Backyard and it became one of the first places their kolaches could be found, an over-the-counter surprise barfood treat. Since then, they’ve led a life of what Paul calls “rouge bun slinging” through Brooklyn, appearing at pop-ups and food festivals with all the other food concepts yet to find a home.
But while their new glass doors have yet to welcome morning commuters or roving brunch crowds — giving the road food staple an aura of Brooklyn-style exclusivity, Kings Kolache currently closes at 3pm — on weekends, lines can be seen occasionally and gently forming on the bright grey pavement, just like Andrew Knowlton predicted.
Top photo credit: Andrew Karpan
For more news, sign up for Bushwick Daily’s newsletter.
Join the fight to save local journalism by becoming a paid subscriber.