Asian American and Pacific IslandersFood + Drink

Houston’s Koffeteria: A Café Bridging Ethnic Diversity and Culinary Excellence

Houston's café and bakery scene is thriving, thanks to Chef Vanarin Kuch.

Chef Vanarin Kuch (Photos by Evan Sung)

Houston has taken its sweet time developing a thriving café and bakery scene, but that scene has arrived, and the catalyst has been the city’s famed ethnic diversity. From knafeh and manakish, to conchas made from nixtamalized maize, to croissants and religieuses that would make Parisiens drool, Houstonians have become spoiled for unique breakfast and pastry choices. And few have spoiled us more than Chef Vanarin Kuch, the out and proud, Houston-born, Cambodian-American owner of Koffeteria, a café in Houston’s East End.

Survivors of the brutal concentration camps of Cambodia, Kuch’s family settled in Houston in the 1980s and ran a variety of donut shops and restaurants. Most were east of I-69 from the George R. Brown Convention Center, then the city’s primary Asian District. A product of Jersey Village High School, where he was a gymnast and cheerleader, Kuch worked in the kitchens of his family’s businesses. “I was frying up doughnuts and chickens at an age when it probably wasn’t legal for me to do so,” he laughs.

His interest in cooking was piqued after attending culinary school at the Art Institute of Houston. He worked with several notable chefs before gaining fame as the main pastry chef at Houston’s popular Tiny Boxwoods.

His drive to push boundaries soon whisked him to the Big Apple, where he honed his skills at a variety of Michelin-starred kitchens. He also did a stint on the reality show circuit, appearing on Top Chef: Just Desserts and Chopped. In New York, he met his husband-to-be, Andreas Hager, which led to a move to Cincinnati, where Hager was pursuing a master’s degree. Craving a bigger stage, Kuch became executive pastry chef at a new boutique hotel in Chicago, where he quickly gained critical acclaim for creations combining his fascination with science, cosmology and baking.

He soon realized, however, that his first love was Houston, so he convinced his Wisconsin-born husband to move to the hot, humid city of his roots. And in 2019, Koffeteria became a reality. “It was always my intention to return to Houston. This is where I’m from. Where my family is. Koffeteria is a way for me to give back to my community.”

At his mother’s suggestion, he opened in a revamped industrial space on the edge of the booming nightlife district of the same East End where as a youth, he ran the family fryer. “I named Koffeteria after the Houstonian word ‘washateria,’ which is what my grandma used to own in Montrose.”

Kuch has expanded his repertoire of savory dishes and taken his baking talents to new levels, “but I try to keep it fun and approachable,” he says. “Koffeteria is based on my life experiences and what I grew up eating as a first-generation American.” The menu changes often, and regulars know to check the website the night before to pre-order favorite items that often run out. Once you taste the delights from this kitchen, you’ll understand why they run out.

“In Houston, diversity isn’t just a concept; it’s the secret ingredient in our culinary evolution. From knafeh to croissants, the city’s café scene is a testament to our varied tastes.”
— Chef Vanarin Kuch

Many Koffeteria dishes have become classics, often as stunning to see as to eat. A pistachio baklava croissant comes drizzled with lemon syrup. A half-corn, half-flour tortilla is stuffed with fluffy scrambled eggs and sweet Chinese sausage, topped with a tangy green papaya pico de gallo. Kolaches burst with beef brisket pho, to be dipped in hoisin and Sriracha. When he ran his pastry program in Chicago, Kuch couldn’t give away a pastry topped with crushed hot Cheetos and filled with oozing nacho cheese, but Houstonians have embraced this as an iconic dish of our city. “Hot Cheetos are as Houston as it gets,” he laughs.

Even the drinks reflect Kuch’s humor and loyalty to local purveyors, from coffee made with beans from highly-regarded local roaster Little Dreamer to a latte called the Salty Cambodian, made with condensed milk, homemade sourdough butter and sprinkles of Maldon salt.

Some of the exquisite creations from Koffeteria

Kuch is proud of his heritage and hosts Cambodian-themed pop up dinners at Koffeteria in which he shares the kitchen with family members, including his mother who grows many of the unique vegetables he uses in her backyard. “Many plants native to Cambodia, like kaffir limes and lemongrass, do well in Houston,” he says. If they die in the winter, they pop back out once things warm up.”

Kuch views with some trepidation the looming gargantuan $10 billion rerouting of three major highways through Downtown, which will take out large sections of Houston’s East End within a block of Koffeteria. “Construction begins in October of this year. We’ll have to find a way to live with what happens,” he says. “I already know of businesses on St. Emanuel just a block away forced to sell to make way for the rebuild. We hope Houstonians will be willing to put up with the hassles to get to us.”

In their free time, Kuch and his husband, who handles front-of-house duties for Koffeteria, enjoy time with their cats Hulot and Biscuits, as well as gardening at home. “Anything from the business that can be turned to compost, we take home and use in our garden,” he says. They also love biking and running, particularly along the bayous of Houston. Being active allows them to pursue other interests, such as the city’s taco trucks, where Kuch seeks out huge elongated quesadilla-like specialties called “machetes.” They are also committed supporters of LGBTQ rights, Black Lives Matter, and women’s rights.

Vanarin Kuch is not just a chef. He’s an artist, a visionary, and a huge reason for Houston’s ascendance as a global food mecca. He’s combined his immense talents with the resilience that comes from being the child of immigrant survivors of one of the most repressive regimes in world history. He also possesses the pride of growing up as a gay Asian man who has bridged his life experiences into a business that reflects the spirit of the city.

“And Houston is a city I truly love,” he adds.

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