After a recent lunch at Sparkroot Coffee Bar + Fare downtown, I got into a little debate with my coworkers over the merits of cucumbers.
One of my favorite Sparkroot pressed cheese sandwiches ($6.50) - that's owner Ari Shapiro's name for what are commonly called paninis - is anchored by slices of refreshingly crisp cukes. Frankly, I think the cucumbers make the sandwich; crunchy and spring-like fresh against the rich backdrop of tangy Welsh Cheddar cheese and fresh chives.
But my colleagues pooh-poohed the cukes, suggesting that zucchini would work better. Or eggplant.
I wish I had thought quickly enough to get the opinion of the woman in her 20s at the counter rocking the Bohemian chic look as she waited for an iced chai latte ($4). I am sure she would have been on my side on the cucumber debate.
And I would have applauded her on her choice of the latte, a creamy chai with subtle fresh ginger snap to it and just a wisp of cinnamon.
I might also have suggested to the college-age guy in the khaki shorts and polo shirt behind her to go for the Blue Bottle Coffee Co. espresso ($2.50), with its rich chicory hues. The individual drip ($2.50 and $3.50) isn't as fancy, but it's a fine bold brew with hints of sweet. Sparkroot has bragging rights as the only place outside the San Francisco Bay Area and New York City to serve the popular Blue Bottle beans.
The cucumbers were about the only thing that my friends and I parted opinions on at Sparkroot, the industrial-cool corner coffee shop that just celebrated its first birthday. Sparkroot is all exposed metal and distressed wood. Low-slung bare lightbulbs hang overhead and unpolished concrete is underfoot. Pipe railing encloses the small, sun-splashed loft.
Tables are set close together and a single coffee table anchors a living room-like nook. It's super casual; you order and pay at the counter and you return to the counter when your order is ready. Drinks come out pretty fast; sandwiches take a bit longer. The server attaches your order slip onto a pulley that zings the 15-foot-trip to the sandwich prep area.
Almost everything on Sparkroot's menu, from the tangy mustard to the granola, is made in-house. It's part of owner Shapiro's healthful eating mantra that's also on full display at his Xoom Juice fruit smoothy stores. (The downtown outpost is a few doors away from Sparkroot on East Congress Street.)
Sparkroot's menu is meat-free but not vegan; pressed cheese sandwiches use real dairy cheese and a couple feature eggs. There is one sandwich on the menu that pairs vegan Cheddar with spinach and tomato. On a lunch visit last week, the faux cheese oozing out of the toasty ciabatta roll lacked the tang of the real deal.
The "just Gouda" was smoky and robust and the fontina paired with a portobello mushroom and peppery arugula was creamy and nutty. That sandwich would have hit a home run if the mushroom was grilled or smoked; it came naked and plain, adding a sweet earthiness but not much zing. The caramelized onions paired with Gruyère and a house-made mustard were heavenly, even though the mustard tended to overpower its partners.
Spend another $1.75 to add fresh kale chips to your meal. They're crispy and salty like potato chips - and just as addicting - but without the guilt. Or you can go for super food-healthy with the quinoa kale salad ($6.50) paired with a slightly tart lemony avocado cream dressing.
Sparkroot is at the corner of Congress and Fifth Avenue, in a building that formerly housed the Martin Luther King public housing.
It's now One N. Fifth Avenue, with market-rate apartments upstairs and street-level retail space.
There's plenty of parking all around, even with the tangle of streetcar construction that has blocked off Congress Street for months.
• Sparkroot Coffee Bar + Fare, 245 E. Congress St., 272-8949.
• Hours: 7 a.m. to 10 p.m. Mondays through Saturdays, 8 a.m. to 9 p.m. Sundays.
• Noise level: Pleasant buzz from conversations.
• Vegetarian options: Plenty. Not one dish features meat, although most of the sandwiches have real cheese.
• Family call: There are sweets and a PBJ pressed sandwich, but this is pretty much an adults-having-lunch spot.
• Price range: Sandwiches and salads are $6.50; an artichoke hummus plate or bruschetta served after 3 p.m. is $7.