Restaurant Reviews

Nestled Inside a Climbing Gym, 5.Ate Café Is Serious in Its Intentions

I used to climb. Back in high school, I spent afternoons and weekends bouldering and top-roping (I never did get that lead cert) out at the original Texas Rock Gym location in Memorial. I was in the best shape of my life back then, but I doubt it had anything to do with our steady diet of Mountain Dew and Funyuns, pulled from the gym vending machine. At 5.Ate Café, the semi-service cafe nestled inside Inspire Rock, a climbing gym and “Team Building Center” a stone’s throw from I-45 in Spring, the food is just as grippy as the La Sportivas.

5.Ate is a play on the numbered rating system for climbing difficulty, with 5.8 representing the start of what most would consider serious climbing. Things just get more difficult from there, all the way up to 5.15. Given the aspirations of this low-key cafe, I’d say it’s an appropriate moniker. 5.Ate is serious in its intentions, but it’s still approachable for a wide range of enthusiastic eaters, offering a slate of burgers, pizzas and sandwiches served amid calls of “On belay!” and puffs of climbing chalk.

The kitchen centers around a small gas-fired stone deck oven, and the pizzas it turns out show real promise. Not quite Neapolitan style, the pies boast a slightly puffy crown surrounding an otherwise thin crust. A quick-ish turn through the stone oven renders the bottom crust crisp and charred in spots. A pleasantly yeasty flavor and a slightly chewy interior texture are offset by the blistery bubbles that bloom on the perimeter, dappled and shattering as you pull the pie apart.

That same crust serves nicely as “Middle Eastern seasoned flat bread” in the hummus appetizer. While the spartan presentation of the bread (simply brushed with butter and dusted with a spice mix anchored by dried rosemary) is swell on its own, the accoutrements don’t quite stand up. As you tear blistered and blackened strips of bread and dredge them through the hummus, you’ll likely want a jolt of lemon and more garlicky muscle. If you opt for the Spicy Garlic Chili “topping” — served on the side — you’ll be met with a small plastic tub of run-of-the-mill chile garlic sauce like that produced by a certain green-capped squeeze-bottle purveyor fond of roosters.

The other appetizers are easy to skip. The fries are sadly pale without, cottony within. The Caprese salad suffers under the weight of grainy mozzarella and overly firm tomatoes, even if the sunflower pesto is nice, with each constituent flavor still holding its own instead of being blended into a faceless paste.

Back to those pizzas, which occupy a good chunk of the menu, the rest of which is devoted to sandwiches and burgers.

For the best showcase of that speckled, crispy/chewy crust, opt for the Red and White. Simplicity serves a crust like this nicely, and the Red and White is smart in its simplicity. Pairing mozzarella cheese, ricotta and tomatoes isn’t particularly novel, but the added step of par-drying the cherry tomatoes is a little spark of genius. The tomatoes are concentrated in their sweetness and acidity, yet not so dried that they don’t pop under gentle pressure, a nice little explosion of sweet/tart/savory splashing against the creaminess of the cheese. There’s also a scatter of fresh thyme, a recurring theme on several pies.

Take the ratatouille pie, for example. It comes out pretty as a picture, with variegated stripes of zucchini and yellow squash ribboning across the top of the pie. Underneath, the eggplant spread reads a bit too sweet and fruity, compounding the effect of a sauce that already leans that way. That eggplant might serve a better purpose stacked alongside the squash atop the pie. A scattering of capers sparks against the charry bits, a nice touch. That neat drying trick adds texture to the squash, and texture is what makes this pie almost work. A bit more restraint in the sweetness, and perhaps more of those slightly (and pleasantly) chewy squash strips, and it would work and work well.

The Ultra-Veg walks a similar tightrope. While the kale blossoms under the heat of the oven, its curly leaves taking on an array of textures and flavors running from green and robust to sweet and wilted to charred in turns, the pie suffers from other additions. The par-dried tomatoes that work so well elsewhere turn overly sweet when they butt up against roasted peppers and onions, and the whole thing lists a bit. Once I picked a slice free of everything but the kale and a few bits of thyme-roasted mushroom, a harmony emerged.

Simpler is better on the burger side of the menu as well. You might be tempted by the kitchen-sink allure of the Farmhouse, with its en vogue adders of pork belly and a fried egg. Avoid temptation. The burger is a bit of a mess, both literally and figuratively, each part subtracting a bit from the whole. The flavors run together distractingly, and the egg yolk runs all over your hands. If you must, I advise you to leave the side of lettuce, tomato and onion on the side; they serve only to speed the yolk from the burger, where it might otherwise be captured by the nooks and crannies of the lovely house-made English muffin sandwiching the whole messy affair.
That muffin is on fine display on the Shar-Warma, the slight sourdough tang of the bread brought out by a sure-edged tzatziki and feta cheese. If only they’d give those muffins a quick run across the deck before assembly, they’d make an even lovelier burger base.

Though the Hueco Tanks might appeal to climbers — it’s named for a much-loved rock-climbing site in West Texas — its mix of pepper jack cheese and “Mil Ila” dressing (glorified ranch) tends toward sameness. It’s not that it’s bad, per se, just that its flavors and textures are a bit muddled. Be sure you wash your hands before hitting the rock again, lest you turn that next route into a greaseball.
Each of the burgers starts with a thin, hand-formed patty, smashed for maximum crust and flavor. The Reuben is the odd man out in this approach, rendering corned beef in burger shape, topped with a combo of creamy Thousand Island, grilled sauerkraut, melted Swiss and dill pickles that hits all the high notes of its namesake while still feeling like a burger, even if it is a bit on the salty side. I’d swear there’s even a pop of caraway in there somewhere. If only the kitchen would hit that patty as hard as it does the other ones.

From the sandwich-proper section, the banh mi is the surprising way to go. The pork belly is nicely cooked, with properly rendered fat, tender meat and just a touch of crispness on the outside. The pickled carrots and daikon are a bit soft where more crispness would be nice to act as a refreshing counterpoint to the rich pork. They’re also a bit tame in their pickling. The pâté is earthy and rich, but I’d like a slick of mayo and a little dousing of soy or Maggi to help keep things lubricated. Though this likely comes as no surprise, the bread is not quite right. It’s the same half hoagie/half bolillo roll 5.Ate Café uses on other sandwiches, a far cry from the airy crumb and crisp crust of a proper rice-flour baguette. It is toasted, so it has some crispness. It won’t shred the roof and corners of your mouth, at least, if that’s as much an issue for you as it is for me. I also want more cilantro. Basically, all the things that make me love banh mi are either absent or hesitant. Despite all that, it is a tasty sandwich. Just think of it in different terms and you’ll be fine.

Unfortunately, I don’t think there are proper terms for the PB&J, which I actually mistook for the pork belly banh mi on one visit. Once I got that sorted, my disappointment waned, though it did not disappear. On its own merits, the pork belly is properly cooked with a tender interior and melty fat but nice crisping on the outside, including a bit of char that butts up against the greenness of the chiles. Thinly sliced and well distributed, they’re more flavor than heat, which is nice. The roll is an also-ran. I wish they’d given it a run through the deck oven for a bit of textural contrast. There’s too much of that pepper jack again; it has a smoothing effect on everything else. I really wanted a pop of acid to wake things up, even after I realized it wasn’t supposed to be a banh mi. The fancy ranch is back in play as well. I’m not sure it works on this sandwich, especially with the overabundance of creamy cheese already on display. Better bread, less cheese and a little spark of tartness, and this could be a much different, much better sandwich.

That tends to be the rule here at 5.Ate. Just a few tweaks, a little more Beta, and 5.Ate could bump many of these dishes. Still, there are a good number of bright spots scattered throughout, offering enough hold to keep the menu from flagging. 5.Ate is not destination fare, unless your destination includes a couple of 5.9s, but it’s certainly a worthy picnic stop.

5.Ate Café

403 East Louetta Road, 832-980-5ATE(5283); Hours: 11 a.m. to 9 p.m. Mondays through Saturdays, closed Sundays.

Caprese salad $8
Hummus $7
Steak fries $3
Specialty pizzas $10-$12 (9”), $14-$18 (14”)
Burgers $6 (Farmhouse $9)
Sandwiches $8
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Nicholas L. Hall is a husband and father who earns his keep playing a video game that controls the U.S. power grid. He also writes for the Houston Press about food, booze and music, in an attempt to keep the demons at bay. When he's not busy keeping your lights on, he can usually be found making various messes in the kitchen, with apologies to his wife.
Contact: Nicholas L. Hall