Few people have spent more time thinking about sustainability in the restaurant industry than Jeremy Barlow. The chef-owner of Tayst has become practically synonymous with local food and green enterprise, earning Nashville's first certification from the Green Restaurant Association and leading by environmentally aware example at his casually elegant 21st Avenue eatery.
For instance, in his meat purchasing at Tayst, Barlow buys whole local animals to reduce transportation costs and support Middle Tennessee farms. He added aerators to sinks to reduce water waste and 86'ed bottled water altogether. The lights at Tayst are low-energy LED and CFLs, and the candles are made from sustainable palm oil. Anything to reduce the carbon footprint. Just ask him what he thinks about compostable containers for takeout food, and you'll get an earful about the downside of biodegradable cups, clamshells and cutlery made with everything from sugar cane to bamboo.
With that in mind, it was no surprise that Barlow all but eliminated non-food inputs when he recently launched Sloco sandwich shop in 12South. No clamshells. No cutlery. No cups. But you're welcome to pour some water in one of the Mason jars on the shelf by the door, and you can even take it home with you. After all, Barlow can't recycle that kind of glass, and he's trying keep trash to a minimum. With orders written on tiny dry-erase boards and a payment system that emails receipts to customers, the restaurant is virtually paperless, with the exception of the recycled wrapping around the sandwiches. Even the plants on the counter are micro herbs, which ultimately add color and freshness to the sandwiches as well as the decor.
But while Barlow and the Sloco team go out of their way to reduce, reuse and recycle, they simultaneously manage to inspire and elevate the classic deli menu. You think No. 5 on the menu board is going to be a standard-issue chicken-and-mayonnaise sandwich, right? Well, think again. Dark meat from local chickens is braised, pulled from the bone and tossed with diced apples, honey-apple vinaigrette and a touch of house-made aioli, then topped with a crisp hay of pan-fried julienned sweet potatoes and served between two slices of multigrain bread baked from scratch. It's the kind of sophisticated layering of flavors, textures and temperatures that we've come to expect at Tayst, where Barlow often deconstructs and reinterprets the components of classic dishes — from BLTs to the McDonald's Big Mac. But at Sloco, he's working in the opposite direction, taking the components of a fully developed entrée — including house-cured meats, seasonal produce and signature sauces — and slapping them between two pieces of bread. What's more, he's doing it to great effect and for a modest price.
In Barlow's white-tile-and-reclaimed-wood-clad sandwich stand, braised Gourmet Pastures grass-fed beef on a whole-wheat sub roll, with pureed potatoes and a medley of wilted kale and Swiss chard, goes by the name "loafless meatloaf" and costs $7.50. Meanwhile, a $7.75 chicken pesto sandwich layers tender roasted white meat, Noble Springs goat cheese, fresh greens, tomatoes and a puree of parsley, cilantro, rosemary and olive oil.
This time of year, Barlow uses a lot of kale and chard, and he foregoes flavorless out-of-season tomatoes for tomatoes that were preserved during the growing season. (That's where all the Mason jars come from.)
To keep things local around the calendar, Barlow designed a menu that could stay the same all year while adapting to the shifting seasons. Come spring, the kale and chard on the smoked chicken Cordon Bleu might shift to mâche or arugula, while the jarred tomatoes will be replaced with fresh sliced heirlooms. Meanwhile, the roasted vegetable sandwich will evolve from tubers and squash to asparagus and spring crops, while maintaining the creamy layer of tofu spread and tangy schmear of mustard on toasted multigrain loaf.
Three vegetarian items on the roster of 10 sandwiches include the excellent roasted vegetable medley, vegan meatball sub (quinoa soaked in tomato juice, blended with cornmeal and baked into crisp globes that get topped with tomato sauce and vegan cheese) and shaved seitan with squash, chickpeas and sesame dressing. Gluten-free bread from The Wild Muffin bakery is available and is one the few items not prepared on site.
Locally raised meats anchor the menu, and Barlow & Co. cure everything themselves, including bacon with a hint of sweetness and pastrami rubbed with paprika, garlic, mustard and coriander. Remember, house-cured meats don't look like grocery store cold cuts, which so often are the cheery marketable color of a puppy's tongue. Sloco's sorghum-cured ham, for example, emerges from the oven a pale beige (the hue of cooked pork!), which the kitchen team enlivens with a colorful relish of butternut squash and peppers, along with a slice of Tomme cheese, tomatoes and greens.
Between the ham and cheese, Redneck Reuben (corned pork shoulder with caraway slaw, Swiss cheese and mustard) and all the bacon, Sloco goes through a lot of local pork. If you stop by on a Friday, you might find Barlow and Jason Lockman breaking down a whole hog — even scraping out the head to make an impromptu terrine to slather on a Cuban sandwich. You're not going to see that at a McDonald's. But there's a lot about the Golden Arches that Barlow would like to emulate — chiefly the efficiency and affordability of the fast food experience, as well as its ubiquity. He is quick to talk about his plan for expanding the Sloco brand, which already offers online ordering and will someday include bicycle delivery and multiple locations. It's all part of a broader vision to increase demand for local, seasonal food and thereby drive down prices, to make sustainable ingredients as accessible and affordable as inputs from industrial agriculture.
Ah, yes, you say. Of course, you'd rather support a local sandwich shop than a corporate chain any day, but can Sloco compete on that most compelling of all non-food inputs — i.e. children's play structure? "We don't need that," Barlow says. "We've got Sevier Park across the street."
Sloco serves 11 a.m. to 3 p.m. Monday through Saturday.