Restaurant News & Reviews

Not your average lunch counter: Recess Cafe offers fresher, more creative fare

Recess Cafe specializes in fresh daily takeout for breakfast and lunch in Sacramento.

Recess Cafe opens in midtown for breakfast and lunch. They specialize in freshly made takeout but also have a little room for eating inside and out.
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Recess Cafe opens in midtown for breakfast and lunch. They specialize in freshly made takeout but also have a little room for eating inside and out.

It may be easy to overlook but Recess Cafe's buzz is deserved.

Opened in March, this sandwich shop occupies a small corner niche in a nondescript state office building on shady, out-of-the-way Q Street. Owners Ross Dreizler and Joe Mayo Jr. are turning out sandwiches, salads and soups (made by Dreizler’s mom) with integrity and heart, making it a worthwhile lunch stop.

Mayo’s last name might seem all too on the nose for a sandwich shop owner, but it’s Dreizler who has a background in restaurants. A Sacramento native, he worked for twelve years as a sushi chef at Sushi Cafe on Freeport Boulevard. Mayo, who still has a day job as a project manager at the Department of Motor Vehicles, was a loyal customer who had become a friend, one who loved food and had always dreamed of owning a restaurant.

Mayo spotted the space and the two decided to collaborate on a modest sandwich shop – but one that offered fresher, more creative fare than your average office-building lunch counter.

There are no mass-produced prewrapped sandwiches here, though everything is packed up for handy carryout. Coffee (both hot and iced; try the latter with almond milk) comes from Old Soul, pastries and bread come from Bella Bru and breakfast sandwiches and a hearty breakfast burrito fill up the morning crowd. That breakfast burrito, stuffed with chorizo and not overfilled with potatoes, comes toasted into an oblong on the panini grill, a charmingly innovative use of the Cafe’s scant equipment.

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Customers fill Recess Cafe at lunchtime on Tuesday July 3, 2018 in Sacramento. The cafe is mostly takeout with fresh soup, sandwiches and salads daily located at 1102 Q Street.

Downtown Sacramento has a huge workday crowd, but sadly not enough good grab-and-go workday breakfasts. I’m all in for the development of a New York–style egg-on-a-roll culture here. The breakfast sandwiches at Recess are not quite that, but they’re good and hearty, with scrambled eggs and a choice of bacon and cheddar or ham and Swiss. If your breakfast tastes skew more L.A. than N.Y.C., there’s also a sweet chia pudding with almond milk and maple syrup, as well as a yogurt parfait.

Those soups made by Dreizler’s mom vary, though a ground-pork chili with roasted is a constant. They’d run out on my lunch visits, but I sampled the savory minestrone, thick with vegetables and rich with tomato and herb flavor.

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Beet & Farro Salad contains marinated beets, avocado, farro, arugula, lemon creme Fraiche at Recess Cafe on Tuesday July 3, 2018 in Sacramento.

Salads, unlike the sandwiches, do come already packaged in the cold case. I liked the earthy quinoa and brussels sprouts salad, but the black lentil swam a bit in its tangy-sweet dressing, which overpowered the subtle legumes. The fresh, balanced beet and farro with lemon crème fraiche, the Cafe’s most popular, topped with creamy slices of perfect avocado.

Dreizler’s background as a sushi chef shows in a new poke special, soon to be added to the menu. It was a little big over-garnished for my taste, but the spicy dressing on the fish was right on. Dreizler also plans to add a few sushi rolls. The owners’ strategy, he told me, has been to start with a small, modest menu and add items as they built up their clientele.

Likewise, they started slow and haven't advertised other than by word of mouth. Dreizler estimates that about 75 percent of their business comes from the office building in which Recess is situated, with 25 percent from outside customers.

The choice of staying low-key was in part to get their young staff trained before ramping up business. The staff was on point on my visits, with a laid-back attitude but a competent vibe, including during busy lunch rushes.

Service is personable, but I wish the cafe could add more options for how the food is delivered. On my visits, even for-here items – to be eaten at the few outdoor tables on Q Street’s wide sidewalks – came in a takeout box. I get that a modest operation can’t sling fine porcelain, but even paper plates would be nice, and might also help keep the pasta salad served with all each sandwich from making the bread soggy, a flaw that marred a couple of my cold sandwiches.

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The School House Special is smoked salmon over cream cheese with cucumber and pickled onion served open face over toast at Recess Cafe on Tuesday July 3, 2018 in Sacramento. On the side is Quinoa & Brussels Sprouts Salad that includes quinoa, charred brussels sprouts, roasted red bell peppers with Dijon vinaigrette.

Toasting the bread of all the cold items would also help. The bread, sliced potato-rosemary from Bella Bru, is soft enough that it quickly goes mushy. Thankfully, that wasn’t a problem on the refreshing, open-face School House Special, topped with a thick schmear of cream cheese, oblongs of pleasantly oily smoked salmon, cucumber, and vibrant pink pickled onions. Toasting the bread meant it held up well to hefty toppings, and its summer vibe made it one of my favorite sandwiches.

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If you are a vegetarian the Teacher's Pet sandwich is made of mixed greens, avocado, swiss cheese, cucumber, pickled onion, kolkata olives with a garlic & red pepper aioli at Recess Cafe on Tuesday July 3, 2018 in Sacramento. It is served with a Penne Pasta Salad that includes penne, kalamata olives, bell pepper, red onions, feta with a Milazzo garlic vinaigrette.

The hearty vegetarian Teacher’s Pet sandwich, on the other hand, suffered from too-soft bread – a pity, because the fillings of avocado, Swiss, olives, mixed greens, and red-pepper aioli, which sounded a bit odd, meshed perfectly to make an unusually satisfying vegetarian sandwich. By the way, vegans, take note: Dreizler notes that he has vegan aioli on hand and that he’s willing to make off-menu combos to ensure customers’ different dietary needs are met, a flexibility he attributes to his years as a sushi chef.

The Recess Clubhouse, while decidedly not vegetarian, was a pleasing spin on a classic club, with turkey, crunchy bacon, avocado, greens and more of those zippy pickled onions. All sandwiches come with a pleasing if unremarkable pasta salad.

The hot panini are excellent. I find toasted sandwiches often suffer from overweening ambition: too thick to bite, so crunchy they abrade your mouth, or so stuffed with ingredients the flavors are muddied. That’s not the case here, where a tuna melt elevated by the use of Japanese mayonnaise and a flavor I couldn’t identify (it turned out to be toasted sesame oil) is modestly sized but packed with great taste – not to mention perfectly golden and hot all the way through. It’s been a special, but was such a runaway hit it’s being added to the permanent menu.

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Time Out Panini consists of roast beef, mixed greens with red pepper aioli at Recess Cafe on Tuesday July 3, 2018 in Sacramento. It's served with a Hearty Lentil Salad that includes black lentils, cherry tomatoes, basil, garlic, feta with a balsamic vinaigrette.

The Time Out, with tender roast beef and some spring mix, was an unusual blend of hot and cold with subtle aioli and pops of pickled onion, and it worked well. The Extra Credit panini, with turkey, provolone and an herbaceous chimichurri, is a hit as well. There’s also a version of a Cubano, the Nap Time, and a grilled cheese. According to Dreizler, the hot sandwiches are his most popular items, which doesn’t surprise him: “You press anything down with some rosemary garlic butter and it tends to taste a little bit better,” he said with a laugh.

Will the sandwiches at this easygoing, easy-to-like little Cafe reinvent haute cuisine? No. Will they feed you well with some interesting and distinctive flavors at lunchtime, with change left over from a ten-dollar bill? Yes.

It's a recess worth a little skipping for.

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Customers enjoy their lunch at Recess Cafe on Tuesday July 3, 2018 in Sacramento. The cafe is mostly take out but does have some seating inside and out.

Recess Cafe

1102 Q St., 916-389-0121

Hours: 7 a.m-3:30 p.m. Monday-Friday.

Beverage options: Tea, coffee from Old Soul (including iced coffee) and sodas and juice.

Vegetarian friendly: Some good salads and a strong vegetarian sandwich make this a solid lunch stop for vegetarians. Vegan aioli is even an option.

Gluten-free options: Yes. Salads and soups start out gluten free; although it isn’t obvious from the menu, gluten-free bread is on hand as an option for sandwiches.

Noise levels: Noise isn’t overwhelming in the small space; modest traffic noise may bother some at the few outdoor tables.

Ambiance: Tucked in a bare-bones niche (or should we say recess) in a state office building, this cafe has almost no atmosphere. Black-and-white murals, old school photos and a friendly vibe, however, make it a pleasant stop, albeit one with few counter seats and equally few outdoor tables.

Overall

(Three stars)

This sandwich spot may look suspiciously like every crummy office-building lunch counter with prewrapped fare, but don’t be fooled: Owners Ross Dreizler and Joe Mayo have an ultra-casual under-the-radar hit here with their fresh and creative sandwiches, homey soups and solid breakfast sandwiches.

Food

(Three stars)

A little invention and high-quality ingredients (Japanese mayonnaise, rosemary-garlic butter, lemon crème fraiche) make the sandwiches stand out, especially the panini. (A couple of cold sandwiches would benefit from toasted bread.) At breakfast, the gooey burrito and inexpensive egg and cheese sandwiches are winners.

Service

1/2 (Two and a half stars)

The young, enthusiastic staff is personable and easygoing; it’s clear there are a lot of regulars and they get a friendly greeting. Dreizler is on site nearly all the time. The experience, however, would be elevated by service options other than takeout boxes.

Value

1/2 (Three and a half stars)

Creative, well-prepared sandwiches and salads are all under $10, with breakfast options mostly under $5, making this a solid value for money.

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