View the rotating lineup of flavors in Houston’s Craft Creamery, an ice cream shop in Montrose, and you might work up an endless appetite.
There’s creamy cacio e pepe using fresh black pepper and pecorino cheese; a spice-laden pho flavor made with a broth recipe adapted from a grandmother in Vietnam; a best-selling Bastani that harnesses Persian flavors with cooling rose water and pistachio; an uber-rich Million Dollar Chocolate that goes for $20 a pint; an intriguing hatch-chili cornbread that begins with buttery corn flavor and ends with a spice that tickles the throat; a Space City Orange that’s meant to generate Astros pride while tasting like a creamsicle; and an award-winning brisket ice cream (the scoop won the Rookie Award at the Houston Rodeo Show & Livestock’s Rodeo Best Bites event earlier this year) that’s rife with smoky, rich, meaty notes.
More intriguing is that the flavors at Craft, many of which play off of Houstonians’ interest and tastebuds, aren’t a facade, according to the chef, Steve Marques — meaning yes, a slow-smoked brisket has indeed been blended into a combination of cream, milk, sugar, and eggs to create a frozen treat — a fact that takes some diners aback. “People aren’t surprised that the chocolate has chocolate in it, but they’re surprised there’s brisket in the brisket (ice cream),” says Marques, who notes that the Craft motto is “If it says it, that’s what’s in it.”
In many ways, it’s what this classically trained chef prides himself on — using a French-pot method to handmake dozens of small batches himself, all of which he says focus on real ingredients devoid of gums, starches, fillers, and preservatives that other brands, particularly store-bought, might contain. “There’s also as little sugar in it as I can get away with,” he says. This means the flavors in each scoop are often very forward. Even the vanilla — a flavor often misconstrued or unfairly labeled as plain or mild — is full and robust, which translates into the price: a single scoop runs for $4.25 and double scoops cost $6.50.
Marques emphasizes that with each generously portioned scoop, customers get the quality they are paying for. Still, he says, he knows that in some ways his ice cream is “polarizing.” “Either you like it, or you don’t,” Marques says.
Despite this, Craft’s ice cream has been featured on menus around the city, including restaurants like Trattoria Sofia, Potente, Georgia’s Bistro & Bar, Figo Sugo, 1751 Sea and Bar, Kau Ba Saigon Kitchen, and Guard and Grace, and has expanded to offer special orders to a growing base of clients, including a group of Houston-based, health-conscious professional athletes and jewelry company Kendra Scott. Wholesale and catering jobs, which translate into customizing more unique flavors with a five-quart minimum for individual clients and companies, have also been a moneymaker for the shop, says Marques.
And just this year, Marques has begun using his culinary skills to host multi-course ice cream dinners, pairing Craft’s flavors with garnishes, savory dishes, and wine from local companies and collaborators like Houston’s Nice Winery. Most recently, Craft sold-out of spots for its “The Scoops That Shouldn’t Work” dinner, where flavors like cacao e pepe and chicken and waffles are paired with special side dishes.
“I think some of Steve’s brilliance comes from the savory side of being a chef, so he really understands how flavors hit the tongue,” says Kim Kaase, Marques’ wife and “chief tasting officer.” The chef, she says, dreams in flavors and uses his years of experience — which includes staging in more than a dozen Michelin-starred chefs, and working in at least three — to his advantage.
Raised in the kitchen by an “Italian godmother” who he credits with teaching him the joys of service and feeding people with love, the California native began his chef journey in 1980. Marques says he flew to London three days after his high school graduation to start an apprenticeship in a small French restaurant. There, he’d spend around a decade, in addition to an externship in Paris, before returning to California, where he helped establish one of the state’s first brewpubs and later worked at a bed and breakfast, he says.
In 2005, he made his move to Houston, working at various restaurants, including Eunice, and opened the now-shuttered burger joint, Burger Guys, in 2009, where, similarly, all aspects were made from scratch aside from the bread and cheese. Finally, after stints in Las Vegas at restaurants like Momofuku, Marques decided to take on a new challenge entirely, experimenting with ice cream at home with an emphasis on quality ingredients.
His diligence — “If I’m not going to sit down and eat a dish of the ingredient, I’m not going to put it in the ice cream,” he says — quickly garnered support from close friends, family, and local business owners, and though he never intended to open a storefront, Marques officially opened Craft in November 2020, offering small batches of rotating flavors he made in the kitchen each week.
Since then, the combination of his Montrose shop, wholesale offerings, and events have allowed Marques to present traditional and locally-loved flavors throughout the Houston area.
Exploring the sweet side of things has been a welcomed shift for the chef — the ideal combination of work and play and a foray into learning the chemistry of cold cuisine and just how fulfilling ice cream can be. Plus, he adds: “Customers never send the ice cream back for being overcooked.”
Craft Creamery (1338 Westheimer Road, Suite B) is open from 3 p.m. to 9 p.m. Wednesday through Thursday; 3 p.m. to 10 p.m. on Fridays; noon to 10 p.m. on Saturdays, and noon to 7 p.m. on Sundays.