203 Cafe, 215 Commerce St, Ste 203, FW. 817-782-9004. 7am-3pm Mon-Fri. All major credit cards accepted.
The sandwich. It’s a noble format too often made ignobly in this town, sometimes as an afterthought in restaurants more concerned with higher-ticket dishes, sometimes presented as a “handheld” in hip joints with over-engineered décor and menu adjectives like “chef-driven” and “housemade,” and most often as a limp, lifeless assemblage made by an “artist” and sold by its length. The truly stellar sandwich, simple and well crafted, requires thought and balance, a clear focus on quality in both bread and fillings, and careful obsession with the preparation of each component. Places with this attention to detail are few, and, until this summer, none of them were downtown.
At 203 Cafe, Executive Chef Jason Klein and his team are clearly attending to all the right details. The newly opened breakfast and lunch spot on the second floor of Fire Station No. 1 is clean and bright, with shiplap counter fronts, Mid-Century-inspired light fixtures, and exposed ducts playing hip-but-not-too-hip foil to the original arched windows of the fire station’s erstwhile living quarters. The open kitchen counter allows patrons to spectate as their sandwich is constructed or, as my guests and I did on a recent mid-week visit, to ignore the show and load up on Klein’s excellent giardiniera and pickles at the nearby salad bar.
Befitting the takeout focus of the cafe, our sandwiches arrived wrapped in waxed butcher paper and packaged in brown bags. The in-one-door-and-out-the-other efficiency of the space leaves no room for seating, but a small array of tables in the adjacent elevator lobby offers a place to eat for those of us who don’t work in the vicinity. My guests and I spread out our paper wrappers-cum-plates. From the first look at our sandwiches, the thought that had gone into them was evident.
Our three panini were crisp and golden, expertly grilled on bread that withstood the pressing and retained its structure. Buttery but not greasy, the glassy crust gave way to fillings that were clearly prepared with the utmost care. On the Pork Press, sweet applewood-smoked ham and bacon were perked up by the red pepper of the soppressata, and the nuttiness of the Swiss cheese was offset by the spice of whole grain mustard and sweet vinegar from the pickles. It would have been easy to over-fill this sandwich and serve just another meat-sweats-inducing gut bomb. Instead, Klein showed restraint that allowed the quality of his ingredients to shine.
This philosophy was even more apparent in the Texas Reuben. Too often, this sandwich falls victim to the idea that it should contain a fist-thick pile of meat drowned in sauerkraut and dressing. Klein’s version, pressed on rye, eschews the traditional corned beef in favor of his pecan-smoked brisket. Lean slices of tender beef, crisp-edged from the griddle, nestled against briny homemade kraut. White and Swiss cheeses stood in for Russian dressing, balancing the fresh tang of the cabbage and rounding out this standout interpretation of a classic.
Even the usually humble pimento cheese sandwich, here spiked playfully with crunch and acidity from fried green tomatoes, delivered comfort, and it elevated its duo of fillings to craving-worthy heights. Our impulse buy of an assortment of cookies and a single-serving buttermilk pie were also far from an afterthought. Perfectly flaky and filled with lemony custard, the pie is worth taking back to the office to taunt your co-workers.
With Klein’s fine dining experience – he spent five years as Molly McCook’s sous at Ellerbe Fine Foods before another five at Reata – he brings a focus on details that is uncommon in the world of take-out breakfast and lunch. Sure, sandwiches are straightforward and easy to make. But done right, carefully and obsessively, as at 203 Cafe, they climb beyond the sum of their parts and into the nobility they deserve.
Pork Press $10.95
Texas Reuben $10.95
Pimento cheese & fried green tomato panino $8.95
Buttermilk pie $3.95