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Thursday, June 25, 2009

Tart, cold and chewy

The weather prediction for the next few days (weeks?) is a daily high of 38-40° C weather - that's around 100° F. The unrelenting heat is what is stereotypically expected of Houston weather in the thick of summer, and spending time in a hot kitchen is not exactly inspiring. Instead, one is easily tempted to find some cool treat to have during the day.

Fortunately, the trend of cool, neo-chic frozen yogurt shops are making their way to town. The frozen yogurt went back to its health food roots when the Los Angeles based chain Pinkberry gained celebrity status for providing tart, minimal flavors, and fruit only toppings. People lined up for this odd expensive homage to deprivation. The nice thing to look for is the backlash to this trend, which I suspect emanated from, or caters to the pan-Asian population of LA. This converse is exemplified by the Yogurtland concept: in place of the limited tart flavors, the place is embraces an abundance of flavors, from sweet concoctions like Butterfinger, peanut butter, and cheesecake, to fruity flavors, to exotic mixes like taro and coconut. In addition, a bar of toppings is available, which again embraces diversity in offering items like mochi bits, gummy bears, and granola in addition to fresh fruit. The beauty of the system, of course, is that all of this is self-serve - an array of soft-serve machines form a wall next where one takes oversized cups and mixes and matches to ones heart's content. The final product is sold by weight - which in LA was a reasonable $0.33 an ounce. The target demographic appears to be the American Harajuku set, to these places are well lit, brightly colored, often with minimal seating, a large video screen of some sort, and thumping music.

The first such place I tried in Houston is called Flavors. It follows the basic formula in outlay, but the tired fruit in the toppings stand, and the cockroaches crawling over the machines pretty much torpedo any recommendations to have for the place.

I have also tried a second chain in Houston, Swirlls. Though they have several branches in the Houston area, I visited the one in the trendy River Oaks neighborhood, where it is situated conveniently near a large Kroger store and a gym. I witnessed a steady stream of patrons clad in work out clothes, some of them sweaty, although I am not sure if it was due to the blistering heat index, or an actual workout. Nonetheless, the clientele that a frozen yogurt store attracts is a big determinant of its image as a "healthy snack" - never mind the large cups and sugar laden candy toppings available.

The basic restaurant layout follows the formula - trendy thumping music, bright colors, exhortations of healthy dining. An array of 16 flavors on machines are available, divided into the "tart" side - original, pomegranate, blueberry - and the "sweet" side, which carry more desserty flavors like cake batter and peanut butter. The toppings bar looked well maintained, and frequently topped off. Aside from the now ubiquitous mochi bits, I found another nod to the pan Asian culture: kaong or syrup preserved sugar palm fruit. Given the neighborhood, this is pretty adventurous.

In a self serve establishment, the norm is to provide these miniature paper cups to sample some of the wares oneself; Swirlls provides a measly two such sample cups per person. Most of the flavors work fairly well - the original house formulation is tangy and light, and the cake batter was indulgent. Priced at $0.43 an ounce, Swirlls is significantly more expensive than what is available in L.A., but that could be because of the lowered competition. I can't help but compare it with Yogurtland, and must admit that the Yogurtland product is a bit better in flavor. However, with free Wifi access, fairly ample seating, and the current oppressive weather, this place invites lingering, and one may come to this area to work out, but end up snacking instead.


  1. Do you know of any snow cone stands in the Upper Kirby / West U area? @HoustonFoodie told me you were the one to ask.

  2. Sorry, but not in the UK/WU area. For a city as hot as this, snow cones are actually remarkably fussy to find.