Houston’s David Buehrer is a man of many passions. Coffee industry types know him as a perennial barista competition competitor here in the United States, and one of the only current top competitors out of Texas. But he’s also the founder of Greenway Coffee and co-owner of Houston's landmark Blacksmith cafe, he’s the culinary curator for TEDxHouston, and he even has a collaboration with shoe company Yuketen. Pretty much anything he is a part of is thoughtful and just plain cool, including the brand new Morningstar Coffee and Donuts, which opened in Houston's Greater Heights neighborhood last month.
Morningstar fuses the holy American breakfast duality—coffee and donuts—with an expansive, impressive brunch menu. It's only a few weeks old, but I think Morningstar might already be one of the best cafes in the American South.
“Are you hungry? Do you need coffee?” Buehrer's words as I walk through the door are sweet poetry, coming off a four-hour drive from Dallas. This order of affairs is a microcosm of the cafe itself; coffee isn’t the headliner, but an equal player in a star-studded cast of multi-faceted delectables. After entirely too much food for two people to possibly eat (shout out to Greenway’s always sartorially correct head roaster John Letoto for pitching in), I’m served a batch brew of Greenway’s La Papaya from Ecuador, and we sit down to talk shop.
Buehrer tells me the build-out of the 1,550-square-foot cafe is a modern take on Shinto/tearoom architecture, one that he worked on for two years with 94-year-old architect and University of Houston professor John Zemanek. The tearoom style is meant to keep the space feeling open while providing more private settings for patrons to socialize. Morningstar is able to achieve this koan-like aesthetic in part by implementing two concrete brick dividing walls on the north and south sides of the building, where most of the seating can be found. The circular windows in the walls allow for customers to see what’s on the other side, thus keeping the open feel while still allowing those areas to be partitioned. A few donated pieces of Zemanek’s art hang on the walls at Morningstar, framed by the openings in the dividing walls.
The brunch menu features composed Southeast Asian influences from Priscilla Nguyen, the chef-in-residence both here and at Blacksmith. Think dishes like Korean steak and eggs with scallion pancakes, gochujang, and pickled vegetables, or rice porridge with blueberries and pistachios. There's also the Moneycat Potatoes—a gochujang and garlic oil-coated spud Buehrer first tasted four years ago while running the Moneycat Brunch with the dish’s originator and recent James Beard winner, Chef Justin Yu of Oxheart.
Nguyen's food menu struts a tight groove, from the honey butter fried chicken biscuit (this is still the South, in case you forgot) and the Mediterranean-leaning crispy rice with kibbeh, feta, and a soft egg. Her dishes all somehow flow together seamlessly. This is one of the best brunches I've had in recent memory, at what is technically a coffee and donuts spot.
And the doughnuts, oh the doughnuts. With the help of Sam Phan, Morningstar’s “Donut Jedi,” Buehrer gets up every “morning” at around 10 p.m. to make the dough for the day’s pastries. Originally the plan was to rotate in new options weekly, but flavors like the Matcha Frost, the cinnamon and palm sugar doughnut known as “The Cop,” and the pineapple fritter with salted chili lime—an homage to Lucas candies—have already become too popular to pull.
Even with all the wonderful culinary goings-on, the beverage program at Morningstar somehow keeps pace. A soon-to-be custom painted three-group Nuova Simonelli Black Eagle and Mythos One ClimaPro grinder do most of the heavy lifting behind the coffee bar, but Morningstar does something a little different for their single-origin espresso. Using a Mahlkönig EK 43 and a modded out single-group La Marzocco Shot Brewer, single origins are pulled at a lower pressure similar to that of a Slayer. And instead of carbonated water, each shot is served with homemade pineapple agua fresca and a small accouterment (on my visit it was a pair of doughnut holes).
For the non-coffee drinker, Morningstar has created an entire matcha-based menu, which Buehrer believes will bridge the gap and bring a whole new customer base into the cafe. Because ceremonial matcha is so concentrated, it mimics the properties of espresso and allows for use in many coffee-like drinks. So now, instead of settling for whatever tea is laying around, non-coffee drinkers have a well-coordinated menu with options created with them in mind, like the Matcha Sua Da, a play on Vietnamese coffee using condensed and evaporated soy milk.
Strip away all the brunch items, the doughnuts, the matcha, and Morningstar is a fantastic coffee shop. But as a wholly American entry into the “coffee and…” space, I think this place is operating at an extremely high level, and should be seen as something of a destination for people wanting more than “just coffee” from their cafe experiences. Morningstar is an exciting step forward for Buehrer and his team in Houston, and for the wider tide of coffee culture here in Texas and across the American South.
It feels like a singular extension of Buehrer, with a lot of help from a handful of Houston's brightest food and beverage minds. It is a cafe in the truest sense, not just a synonym for “coffee shop” but an actual meeting place of high-minded coffee and thoughtful fare. Like Houston itself, it's a place that defies expectations and should not, under any circumstances, be slept on a hub for what's delicious in America right now.
So you’ll forgive me when, on my next 250-mile drive over from Dallas, I won’t just be thinking about coffee. I’ll be craving that crispy rice.