Sandwich City: Slake Cafe

Slake Cafe
120 E. Seventh St. 512-476-0060,
Hours: Open Mon-Fri. Coffee and pastry 7am-7pm, breakfast 7-11am, sandwiches & entrees 11am-7pm. Closed Sat-Sun.
By Mike Sutter | Fed Man Walking | 07.08.13
Ciabatta bread surely was invented by a baker so in love with crust that he peeled baguettes like oranges and made inverse cul-de-sac sandwiches with the insides cut off. Nothing but crust. Slake Cafe celebrates that singular devotion in a space carved into a narrow storefront near Seventh and Congress, a tiny slate gray and red space dominated by an ADA ramp, its relentless slant a metaphor for the dash-and-grab of the downtown lunch hour.
Slake’s ciabatta ripples like an amber ocean a mile wide and an inch deep, a chew-toy crust over just enough air-pocketed white to cushion and absorb what’s inside. It’s the standard-issue bread for the Brazos Brisket and Palacios Pork sandwiches ($8 each), the right foundation for roasted meat pulled into fine, dense fibers.
The brisket sandwich is layered like a trifle: ciabatta, olive relish, meat, a white stripe of mozzarella, more meat, basil pesto, more bread. Like they do in a muffuletta, the olives take loud command, drowning out the mellow fatty saltiness of the beef and a pesto that’s just trying to do its thing with minced garlic and basil’s Good & Plenty grassiness. It’s a texturally homogenous handful, everything broken down to the same soft spread, a creature void of contrast.
That sandwich’s ciabatta-borne Palacios Pork brother is all about contrast, tumbled with matchstick carrots and cucumber nuggets in a relish that throws off sparks of onion and cilantro. With flossy roasted pork and a halo of sweet sesame sauce in that hard-pull bread, it’s an Americanized banh mi with just enough exotica to suggest distant lands without having to leave the safety of the lunch counter.
Not that the safety of a lunch counter is a bad thing. Slake does some of its best work with chicken salad on sourdough ($8). Neutral dressing holds together fat shreds of real roasted chicken mixed with pecans and a little celery. Your standard-recipe Mom stuff. At least until the tarragon blooms like a dandelion puff, a billow of dusky green spice that suggests Mom still has a few secrets. It’s finished with tomatoes and mixed greens on towering slabs of dense sourdough with a crust that shows all the marks of pulling and rising and shifting and toasting, like the baker had been building worlds back there.
Turkey gets a Reuben-esque treatment at Slake, with Swiss and sauerkraut and half-sour dills on rye bread with the same artisan stamp as the sourdough ($8). It doesn’t work. Not because the component elements aren’t strong, but because the main element is so strong. Standard deli-sliced turkey breast blends just fine into the Reuben palette, but this is turkey from a bachelor’s Thanksgiving, pulled from the bone in knobs of light and dark as funky as Uncle Sal’s halftime sandwich. I say own that turkey. Give it cranberry relish. Give it some gravy. Bake some sage into that sourdough. The bird showed up ready to rock. Let’s throw him a party.
(TOP: Slake Cafe fills the former home of Bakerman’s Bakery at Seventh and Congress. The best of four sandwiches in this report was chicken salad on sourdough. FIRST INSET: Slake also sells pastries, muffins and cookies to feed the all-day coffee crowd. SECOND INSET: Sandwiches include Palacios Pork, Brazos Brisket and Weimar Turkey, shown with coconut-squash soup. Photos by Mike Sutter © Fed Man Walking)