Unlike most mainstream coffee hubs where a latte is nothing more than a caffeinated, overtly sweet beverage, a handful of crafty baristas are turning shots of specialty espresso and frothed milk into drinkable masterpieces.
Over the years, coffee has undergone an incredible transformation. It's no longer a beverage that's ground and brewed in five-minute intervals. It's prepared in different grounds, temperatures and artistic interpretations. In fact, ordering a latte at a small coffee shop around Houston often means you'll get your espresso fix served with a topping of artistry.
Working as a barista at a local shop is no longer a job you take as a temporary side gig.
Working as a barista at a local shop is no longer a job you take as a temporary side gig. It's a challenging craft that requires education, practice, patience and a painter's imagination. Simply Google Image search the words "latte art" and you'll come across some incredible and oftentimes unbelievable mugs of coffee.
Cartoon-like cats and dogs, Van Gogh and Dali recreations, awkward Obama portraits, adorable hearts and rosettas, mystical swans and a host of other shapes and figures are now common etchings atop our favorite beverages.
Here are a few of the best places to pick up an artistic latte in Houston:
1. Blacksmith - This industrial shop has become a hub for chefs and other creative personalities and is one of the newest coffee stops in Montrose. Though it's not the coziest place to camp out on our list, Blacksmith without a doubt has the best staff of artistic baristas and menu of specialty coffees.
In fact, John Letoto, one of the coffee experts on staff, was recruited out of Louisville by David Buehrer to assist Blacksmith in developing its creative concept. If you've ever visited Blacksmith, you've probably seen Letoto in dapper attire working his magic.
2. Revival Market - Revival is well known for its artisanal meats, much-buzzed-about doughy kolaches and selection of local produce, but one branch of the business that is often overlooked is the coffee bar. And that's a shame.
The baristas are diligent in carefully crafting and perfecting their espresso-laden foam beverages. Truth be told, my favorite heart-shaped lattes have come from Revival. I can't wait to see what other designs they craft in the future.
3. Catalina Coffee - If you're looking for all the bells and whistles — an artistic, cozy atmosphere, free Wi-Fi, decent coffee, affordable prices — then Catalina Coffee is the place to go. This Sixth Ward coffee shop boasts some of the more refined coffee art in town.
And go ahead and feel free to make any image requests. Catalina baristas are usually spot on in their artistic attempts.
4. Southside Espresso - This hidden gem is often overlooked by Houston coffee fiends who prefer to flock to Agora, Cafe Brasil or Blacksmith, but it's a must-visit shop for those who have an appreciation for gourmet, well-executed beverages. Yes, it's relatively small, but the baristas are friendly, super attentive and courageous in their artistic attempts.
Plus, if you're looking for less mainstream coffee art, meet your new favorite coffee shop. On one of my recent visits, a barista surprised me with an illustration of a dragon. Since then, foam hearts and flowers seem so secondary.
5. Paulie's Restaurant - Revered for their housemade pastas, Paulie's also knows how to whip up their fair share of cafe beverages. Before each new employee is brought on at the restaurant, they attend a one-week training program at Greenway Coffee Company to learn all the ins and outs of specialty coffee, including latte art.
Paulie's owner Paul Petronella credits Buehrer of Greenway Coffee Company and Blacksmith for helping him refine his coffee program two and half years ago.
"He told us what equipment to buy and helped train our employees. Now everyone on staff has at least some knowledge of latte art," Petronella says. The restaurant mostly sticks with hearts, rosettas and tulips day to day, and experiments with bunny and cat etchings every once in a while.
6. Inversion Coffee House - It seems only fitting that a neighborhood coffee shop managed by an art league would embrace latte art. In all honesty, the lattes here taste rather bland, but they're still worth ordering if solely to dote upon and admire for their artistry. Even if they don't completely satisfy your coffee craving, Inversion's imaginative lattes will conjure up some great Instagram commentary.
Want to check out some amazing latte art this weekend? Attend the throwdown that takes place at Tiny Boxwood's this Sunday, Aug. 11. And if you really want your mind blown, dedicate a minute to study Japanese artist Kazuki Yamamoto's latte creations.