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If you're not from the Czech Republic or Texas, chances are you've never heard of kolaches. And if you've never been to those parts of the Lone Star state called the Czech Belt, then you probably have no idea the pastry is bigger than bagels in Manhattan. The Czechs who settled in central and south-central Texas (not to mention parts of Nebraska, Oklahoma, Minnesota and Iowa) brought this Old World treat to the New World in the 1800s, and it has evolved since then into something, well, truly American. There are now kolaches stuffed with hot dogs as well as pepperoni; there are chicken enchilada kolaches and even a Philly cheesesteak version. At Czech Belt rest stops, kolaches are as ubiquitous as six-packs. At churches, there are kolache bake-offs, and the Texas towns of both Caldwell and West lay claim to being the kolache capital of the state.
So what is a kolache? It's made of yeast-leavened dough traditionally dimpled in the middle or folded like an envelope to cradle fruit or something equally sweet. If you saw one and were otherwise unaware, you might mistake it for a Danish. But that would be akin to thinking a bagel is the same as a doughnut. At the new Kolache Factory in Tustin, the pastries take on many forms. Most resemble barely baked balls of dough, kind of pale and monochromatic, their bulk consisting of a pillowy texture not unlike a soft, just-baked dinner roll. But kolaches are fluffier than that. They possess a comforting, toe-curling consistency somewhere between a steamed Chinese bao and a slice of Wonder Bread.
The chain was founded in Houston in 1982 and is arguably the most successful attempt at preaching the gospel of kolaches outside of Texas, with about 30 stores in that many states. The Tustin branch operates like a Dunkin Donuts, with the kolaches displayed in slanted trays behind the register. Order one heated, and the staff will toss it into a microwave hidden under the counter for a 20-second nuke. In this way, kolaches are not unlike Hot Pockets, except they contain ingredients that don't suck. There's a genuine home-baked wholesomeness here that's hard to deny, especially with any of the egg-stuffed breakfast kolaches.
When I bit into the Ranchero, it was as though I were eating a portable Denver omelet swaddled in a sweet, supple blanket of warmth. It's a minor miracle how much filling Kolache Factory manages to stuff inside the dough without compromising the integrity of the bread or its doneness. Others burst with steamy potatoes and crumbly sausage, and one actually spilled sausage gravy onto my shirt. Any would be just about enough for a light, satisfying alternative to a McMuffin, and for lunch, you can get a pepperoni and mushroom kolache crammed with a fist-sized wad of the salami, capable of supplying at least three slices' worth of pizza.
If you want something even more substantial, get one of the kolaches that involve a Polish sausage. There are at least three iterations, some also hiding cheese and pickled jalapeños, all featuring a massive, juice-bursting pork link that begs for some Pilsner and a ball game. Jalapeños are, by the way, a constant in a lot of the kolaches here and perhaps why these have inspired some to coin the term Czech-Mex to describe them. Further proof? A chicken enchilada kolache doesn't taste much like an enchilada, but it's vaguely Mexican with hints of cumin.
There are nods to a Philly cheesesteak using chipped meat and a barbecue beef with actual chunks of steak in a sauce that relies on either vinegar or a hell-bent tomato for its tang. For vegetarians, there's a lovely spinach kolache; when heated, the lake of spinach and cheese melts into a sensation equal to eating saag paneer with a spoon. And of course, there are fruit-topped kolaches, with the apple being the best; right now, there's a seasonal offering of pumpkin. There are non-kolache pastries, too, including flaky strudels and croissants, one pregnant of scrambled eggs, cheese and ham that weighed as heavily as a breakfast burrito in my hand and in my gut.
Given time, Tustin's Kolache Factory could become as popular as 85°C Bakery in Irvine, despite the lack of a Czech community anywhere near OC. These pastries are just as worthwhile as anything the Taiwanese bakery makes. Currently, there are never more than two or three customers in line here, most of them clutching the free kolache coupons the store sent to the surrounding neighborhood. But mark my words: In a hundred years, everyone will know what a kolache is. The cronut, on the other hand, will be forgotten in the next few months.