CHARLIE WILLIAMS & THE MUCH TALKED ABOUT 5.ATE CAFE PHENOMENON
The first time I walked into 5.ATE Café, I really had no idea what to expect from this walk up counter inside of a rock climbing gym. By the time I left, I was using words like “delicious”, “genius” and “original” to describe my experience. 5.ATE was recommended to me by a fellow foodie, Matt Bessey, and it’s a good thing word was starting to get out on social media about this café, or I would never have found it. Located just inside the entrance to the Inspire Rock Climbing Gym, owner/chef, Charlie Renee Williams and crew are cooking up some absolutely amazing and wholly original dishes from their small, open concept, kitchen.
Upon walking up to the counter I was cheerfully greeted by Shane who after learning it was my first visit to 5.ATE, was happy to tell me a little bit about two of his favorite dishes. The Vietnamese Banh Mi with Pork Belly is a slow roasted pork belly, spicy pate, mayo, house pickled daikon and carrots topped with cilantro and thinly sliced fresh jalapenos, served on a bolillo roll. Shane’s second recommendation was the Shar-Warma Burger, a crispy patty of freshly ground certified angus beef, banana peppers, feta cheese, creamy tzatzki sauce an a garlic chili sauce on a house made sourdough English muffin, topped with lettuce, tomato and onion.
Being a fan of Greek/Mediterranean flavor profiles, I ordered the Shar-Warma burger with a side of garlic fries. I’ve got to be honest, I love a good banh mi and that is normally what I would have ordered, but I couldn’t help but wonder if I could really find good pork belly inside of a rock climbing gym (a week later I would find out, that I absolutely could).
I took a seat at one of the four top tables and waited for my order to be delivered while watching people of all ages and fitness levels try their hands at indoor rock climbing. Once Shane brought out my order, the first thing I noticed was how incredible the food smelled! I took my first taste of the burger and was instantly a fan of Chef Charlie and 5.Ate Café.
The beef patty had crispy edges, while still being very juicy; it reminded me of a good gyro, which worked incredibly well with the Greek seasoning in the meat. But was still juicy and perfectly seasoned. The toppings and two sauces work so well together with the tartness from the banana peppers being complimented by the creamy tzatzki sauce and the brininess of the feta and the bit of spice from the garlic chili sauce all combining to make this one of the best burgers I have ever had. Holding this master- piece together is a house made sourdough English muffin that is thicker and yet a bit lighter than your standard English muffin. The texture of this was a welcome change from your average hamburger bun and the served to soak up those two wonderful sauces rather than having them just fall out onto your plate as normally happens with other burgers.
My garlic fries were perfectly cooked; slightly crispy on the outside and tender and fluffy inside. Generally, when you order garlic fries, it’s a sad tablespoon of jarred garlic dumped onto some fries, but not at 5.Ate. Chef Charlie brushes the fries with garlic butter and tops the fries with paper-thin slices of freshly sautéed garlic. These things were the essence of garlic.
I finished my meal and went back to work where I told a few of my coworkers about my outstanding lunch. A few of them decided to make the short drive and try it for themselves and also became instant fans. Just as my wife and mother-in-law did when I took them to 5.Ate for dinner that same night. Yes, this place was so good I ate there twice in one day!
When I returned that evening, Chef Charlie recognized me from my visit earlier in the day and warmly welcomed me back. I couldn’t decide which of their stone baked pizzas to try, so Charlie suggested I try a half and half pizza. I told him to surprise me and I’m really glad I did.
When my pizza was ready, Chef Charlie brought it out and explained that half of the pizza was the Ratatouille and the other half was their Sausage and Peppers. The Ratatouille has a layer of roasted eggplant and garlic spread, topped with provolone cheese, sweet crushed tomatoes, capers, thin and vertically sliced pan dried zucchini and squash, finished with Grano Padano cheese. The Sausage and Peppers contained Chef Charlie’s Mediterranean red bell pepper sauce and was topped with sliced Italian sausage and provolone cheese.
I have never been to Italy; this is what I imagine pizza tasting like there, with a nice chewy, light and airy crust with slight charred spots from their stone baked pizza oven. I have found that generally, when you put too many vegetables or meats on a pizza the crust becomes soggy, especially in the center and Chef Charlie manages to avoid this while still providing a generous amount of toppings to his pizzas. The toppings were so fresh and of excellent quality, with the Italian sausage being the real stand out ingredient here. It had a very nice texture, and the flavor and the sweetness of the sauce complimented it.
Since that first day and over the course of 10 months, I have tried just about every menu item and what is so nice about being a regular customer at 5.ATE, is that you never know what type of specials you will find yourself walking in to. So far they have all been incredible. Charlie had told me that his burgers are supposed to
be messy to eat, which is fine with me because his flavor combinations always work so well together.
While there are only six burgers on the regular menu, I’ve been lucky enough to try about twenty different burgers at 5.Ate, thanks to Charlie’s limited special edition burgers, which are occasionally posed on the café’s Facebook page (when this happens, get there quickly because they sell out fast). I have been so impressed by Charlie’s offerings that I chose him as Chef of the year on my 2014 Best Of list (see Public News issue #7), along with Best Gourmet Pizza, Best Gourmet Burger and Best Restaurant. We even had a tasting with a group of 35 people for our Spring/Woodlands Foodie Tasting and Deals members. That night was all rave reviews.
Charlie’s creativity is unmatched in my opinion. I would love to see him on a show like Food Network’s Chopped and let him go with a basket of secret ingredients to see what he would come up with. Some of Charlie’s off menu items have been his over the top specials that have been very successful. Here are a few highlights: -The Peppercorn Burger that is a play on a steak au poivre, and consists of a crispy pressed Angus patty coated in Dijon and cracked peppercorns then smothered in a cognac and mushroom cream sauce. -The Chipotle Triple-Threat, which had crispy pressed freshly ground certified Angus beef, spicy chipotle cream, chipotle tamarind BBQ sauce and chipotle gouda cheese with hickory smoked bacon and a dill pickle slice. -Turkey Day Burger, which was a Thanksgiving time special. In this one he used turkey burger patty mixed with dried cranberries, pecans and Gorgonzola cheese topped with a slice of flat top grilled cornbread stuffing made with duck broth. cranberry sauce adorns the top half of the sweet potato bun while the bottom half gets a light spread of honey butter served with a side of pickled green apple/red onion slaw. -The Underground, which is a Wagyu burger topped with excellent quality gorgonzola and topped with a house made caramelized onion and fig bacon jam. -Pot Roast sandwich that will make you forget your grandma’s. It has boneless black Angus short ribs braised with Southern Star Buried Hatchet Stout, perfectly cooked carrots on a butter roll with pickled shallots in a gremolata.
I could go on and on about the specials I have had, but another aspect of this place that really I love is the friendliness of the staff. You really don’t expect any follow up care in a casual environment like this, but they will ask to get refills for you, ask how everything is with your meal and if Charlie has time he will even come out and check on and chat with his customers. If you are looking for a fabulous gourmet meal and don’t want to get dressed up to go dine out, I highly recommend checking out 5.ATE Café… you just never know what yummy goodness he will have on the menu on any given day. If not, get my new favorite burger the Garlic Butter and Kale Burger.
I got to sit down with the mastermind behind 5.ATE Café and here is what he had to say.
What made you decide to open your establishment in a rock climbing gym?
Family. When my brother-in-law finally got the go ahead for the gym, there was extra room and he called my wife and me. The rest is history.
Please explain where the name 5.ATE Café came from?
5.ATE is a play on the rock climbing difficulty scale. 5.1 - 5.15
What are your most popular menu items?
We sell quite a few hamburgers. I planned to be a pizza restaurant but we are in Texas. Folks love to try the unexpected so anything off menu goes quickly.
So, you set out to be a gourmet pizza joint inside a rock climbing gym. Tell us more about your style of pizzas.
Dough is the key. I love thin hand tossed Italian style pizzas. To be chewy but light and crisp. The sourdough gives outs a little extra Flavor as well.
I see you have some quirky names for some of your regular menu items. How did you come up with those names?
I try to keep with rock climbing related names if possible such as the Hueco Tanks. A climbing site near El Paso. Also the Shar- warma is named partially after a famous climber.
You have some off-the-wall crazy specials weekly. What is your inspiration to come up with them?
I shop for groceries every day, sometimes twice a day, and I see all the fresh produce. That’s one. Second would be great memories of food growing up and things I’ve eaten while traveling.
I have personally had quite a few of your burger/sandwich specials, my favorite being The Peppercorn, The Underground and The Chipotle Triple threat. How do you decide what will eventually go on the menu and for how long you run a special burger?
Hummm, some burgers are over the top and I love them but they might not work in a quick service setting like we have at the gym so they wouldn’t last long as a special. Simple flavors are more likely to stay on for the long haul.
I see you have pork belly on a few menu items. Tell us about your cooking technique on this?
Dry rubbed for a few days and then 4 hours low and slow after a quick hot sear.
What is your favorite meal here? What has been the most successful menu item?
I love love the Banh Mi. It’s not traditional bread but sometimes food takes on local ingredients. Our Banh Mi uses a staple of the area, the bolillo. I like to use the best of what’s available, plus the roof of my mouth prefers the softer less crumbly Mexican style roll. We also use a large 1/4# portion of our slow roasted pork belly which isn’t as common traditionally The Classic is our most popular item. 1/4# fresh ground Angus chuck, white cheddar and pickles on a freshly made English muffin style bun dripping with homemade 1000 Island (aka Cafe sauce).
What can someone expect walking up to order at 5.ATE Café if they have never been there before?
A smiling face, a computer screen with our menu and probably one of the only gyms they’ve ever walked into that smells of garlic and onions.
Quality seems important to you, from the meat that you use all the way to the house made English muffin buns and bread. Can you tell us more about what special ingredients you use and a little more about the meat and buns?
I only use the freshest most healthful ingredients, which is the main reason I shop so much. The meat is Certified Angus and is hard to beat for flavor and quality. The buns and pizza dough are sourdough but the rest is a closely guarded secret.
Where did you learn your craft?
I’ve had a few food related jobs during high school and college, BBQ and fast food, also running a grill at the dining hall in college, but I’m mostly self/TV taught. I started watching Great Chefs of the West when I was little before there was a Food Network.
What drives Chef Charlie Williams?
What a great job I have making people happy. I always want to work to the best of my ability like I was cooking for the Lord. I want to bring glory to God by the way I run my business, how I treat my employees and how that translates into food. This is the best I can do.
Tell me about your staff. You have some culinary school students working with you; what do they bring to the team?
We have three basically full time kitchen staff. Elisa Godina de Chavez has completed the first half of her culinary degree and Natasha Jiminez has graduated, both from LeNôtre here in Houston. My Sous Chef Jared Hobson has grown up in kitchens with nearly 10 years in the business. When you have a small restaurant, its invaluable to have a group who consider this a career rather
than a job. They all bring passion, dedication and a range of culinary backgrounds which inspires and frees me to create more!
I overheard that what you wanted to accomplish in three to five years you did just in one. What do you contribute your growth and success to?
I obviously believe we’re here for a reason and I’m grateful for the gym’s success as well since it brings in so many unsuspecting climbers! Social media has played a huge role in bringing Foodies from Spring and the Woodlands to a place many never thought they’d go.
What is the future of 5.ATE Café? Do you see yourself expanding or moving to a larger space?
We hope to someday open a second location with a few more tables.
What are your hours?
We are open Monday thru Saturday 11am – 9pm
You have specialty coffees and smoothies too. What makes your coffee and smoothies different from the national chains?
Our Coffee is from Segafredo, an Italian importer very popular in Europe and growing in the U.S. You get handcrafted attention from us that you might not get from a big chain. Our smoothies are Island Oasis and although they aren’t fresh fruit they are high quality ingredients and consistently delicious.
I heard that you have done some catering and special events. Do you plan to do more of those in the future?
We catered a wedding last fall for 200 and had a great time! This summer we have another for 200 as well. Catering is fun because we get to think outside the Café box and create whatever the customer wants, so I hope there are many more to come!
5 words to describe 5.ATE Café?
Always better than you remembered!
5.Ate Cafe is located inside the Inspire Rock Climbing Gym located at 403 E Louetta Rd in Spring, TX 77373. Their telephone number is 832-980-5283 and you can check them out on the web at www.5atecafe.com. They are open six days a week Monday through Friday from 11am to 9pm and closed on Sundays.