A post oak fire burns overnight inside a smoker in the basement of a high-rise building in uptown Corpus Christi. I went searching for breakfast at AEP Texas, an electric utility company, where I heard brisket kolaches (or klobasniky, if you prefer) could be found.
Down a flight of stairs from the lobby was a small food court with just one vendor operating (the other closed eight months ago). Taste at 555, which is named after its address, 555 North Carancahua, opened here in 2022. One of the stipulations owner Ricci Neer required in the lease was that she’d be able to bring her smoker, an Ole Hickory model designed to fit under a vent hood. Because, like everything else on the menu, the brisket and pulled pork are made in-house.
“We’re a barbecue scratch kitchen,” Neer said. She modified a recipe for Parker House rolls to make her kolache dough. She offers a fruit version with cream cheese that changes daily for breakfast, which is served until 10 a.m. The ones filled with brisket and pulled pork are always available, but because the restaurant is in an office building, it’s only open weekdays, from 7 a.m. to 2 p.m. She and her pitmaster, Frank Muñoz, smoke briskets and pork shoulders overnight for sandwiches and tacos, and chill the rest to fill kolaches. “It takes about three days to get the brisket kolaches into someone’s hands,” Neer said.
I parked on the street just before 10 a.m. It wasn’t hard to find the giant “555” on the building, but once inside the lobby, I took the stairs and an elevator. Neer posted a video to Facebook showing the route if you need more explanation. They had just sold the last hot brisket kolache, so Neer put a regular and a spicy version in the oven for me. I sat to enjoy my coffee and picked up a copy of the Corpus Christi Caller-Times to drown out Fox News blaring from the two televisions in the dining area. Neer doesn’t control the TVs, but does supply the daily paper for customer use. “It’s kinda old-school to be able to sit down and drink a cup of coffee with the newspaper, but we like to keep it going,” she said.
Ten minutes after ordering, I dug in. The gooey Colby Jack cheese inside the regular brisket kolache melded with the roughly chopped brisket, which had all the fat trimmed from it. Neer said leaving the fat on makes the dough too greasy during the baking process. The sweet dough and salty brisket were a great match, and were even better after pouring in some of the barbecue sauce that has a tang from pickled jalapeño juice. The spicy brisket kolache was similar, but gets shredded pepper jack cheese for some mild heat. I had too many stops ahead of me to stay until lunch began at 11 a.m., but I talked with Neer about how she became known for brisket kolaches, and how she built the rest of the menu.
“I had a near-death experience with pneumonia,” Neer said. It was 2013, and she was working in digital marketing in Austin. After her hospitalization, her mother, Belma, convinced her to move back to Corpus. Neer had no restaurant experience at the time, but was charting a new path for her life. She took over a vegan and vegetarian restaurant in 2015. It closed, and so did her next venture, a tea room, so she took a job at a local barbecue joint. She saw all their leftover brisket and thought it would make a great kolache filling. Neer started baking, then decided she should make her own brisket.
In late 2019, Neer opened Comanche Corner Café with the tagline “home of the brisket kolache.” She was all in after funding the restaurant with a loan she took out against her car title, but had little in the way of professional equipment. She ran five residential bread-making machines nonstop, mixed all her dough in a small KitchenAid mixer, and had a tiny offset smoker that required more attention than she could handle as a one-woman operation. A friend sold her a commercial mixer, then Kris Busk of Shoreline Sandwich Co. offered her a good deal on a used Ole Hickory smoker that didn’t require as much diligence. It was still too expensive for her budding business, so her mother bought it for her.
Neer said her mom has been her biggest cheerleader. “She has caught me every time I’ve fallen or wanted to give up,” Neer said. Neer brought the smoker with her when she closed Comanche Corner Café and moved uptown with the new Taste at 555 name. She also added some staff, including Muñoz, her cashier, Brandice, and her son, Ben. Even though it’s in a food court, she has more room to work than in her former, tiny cafe building that now houses one of two Garrett’s Barbecue locations in Corpus.
Neer released a new menu earlier this month that includes soup, sandwiches, and tacos. The sandwich buns are made from kolache dough, and are brushed with rendered brisket tallow before grilling. She makes the corn tortillas in-house, and mixes buttermilk and bacon fat into her flour tortillas. The brisket biscuit sandwich for breakfast features sliced brisket and scrambled egg inside a buttermilk jalapeño-cheddar biscuit. You’ll also find a brisket guisada on the menu. The base is brisket drippings that Neer collects during the smoking process. Rather than finishing her briskets and pork butts in a wrap of butcher paper or foil, she puts them in plastic oven bags usually used for whole turkeys. It allows her to capture the juices released by the meat as it reaches her tenderness target.
So far there haven’t been any complaints in the office building about the smoke, though most of the smoking is done overnight. When Neer moved, she thought most of her business would come from the office workers, but she’s been pleasantly surprised at how many of her old cafe regulars visit, and how many new customers have found them down in the basement. The brisket kolaches keep bringing them back, but I’ll have to try more of the menu next time I get to Corpus Christi.