Houston: A Refined Little Burger at Little Bigs
2703 Montrose Blvd., Houston TX 77006 (map); 831-373-2700; littlebigshouston.com
Cooking Method: Griddled
Short Order: Chef Bryan Caswell has created a budding chain that serves up some delicious little burgers.
Want Fries with That? Yes! These spuds are flavorful and perfectly (twice) fried.
Prices: Three Sliders, $5.78 (6.25 w/ tax)
I'm taking a break from Los Angeles burgers this week to talk about a spot in another one of my favorite burger cities: Houston. I've already waxed on about my feelings for chef Bryan Caswell's food. His restaurant Reef launched him into national restaurant conversation after it was named best seafood restaurant by Bon Appetit. So what does he do as a follow up? Burgers! Well, he calls them sliders (more on that later) and he serves three to an order at his ready-for-replication burger restaurant Little Bigs.
Little Big's opened a couple of years ago and has built a solid local following. It's a casual restaurant where getting a good table means seating yourself at one of the outdoor picnic tables (when the Houston heat permits). It's got some of the trappings of a fast food restaurant, but is happily free of any of the pitfalls. The food is painstakingly prepared, right down to the homemade buns that are baked on premises and make the burgers worthy of a special trip.
Strictly speaking, Little Bigs' little burgers aren't sliders—and when it comes to sliders our founder, Adam Kuban, speaks strictly. He's right to point out a difference because there are many. As Adam says,
People, a slider is something very specific. It is not just a mini hamburger. It's a thin, thin slip of beef, cooked on a griddle with onions and pickles piled atop patty. The steam from the onions does as much cooking as the griddle. The buns are placed atop the onions, absorbing the pungent aroma and flavor.
By that measure, the hefty, beefy little guys (three ounces of beef each) at Little Bigs are something other than a classic slider, but that's not a bad thing. Call them mini-hamburgers, or little hamburgers, or just Little Bigs; no matter what you call them, they're damn good.
Little Bigs grinds all of their meat fresh everyday and bakes the buns throughout the day. (Don't be surprised to find your buns served hot out of the oven; mine were.) The meat gets a hit of salt to bring out the beef flavor and a shake of something they call "Bad Ass Seasoning," which adds a bit of a kick though it's far from spicy.
The patty is thick enough to cook to medium rare should you want that (like me), but standard issue is medium. If the classic slider is a delicate little bite of flavor that doesn't favor one ingredient, the Little Bigs' version is sturdier and decidedly more meat-forward. Like with sliders, everything is cooked on a griddle, but as you can see, these guys are thicker than the traditional slider patty. The onions are sweated past translucent into a beautifully caramelized, full-on brown jam. The buns have the sponginess you want in a burger bun, but just that little bit of sturdiness to stand up on their own. They have such a perfect balance of texture and flavor that I asked for a couple to snack on.
I also tried the pork slider, which is another Caswell original recipe, one that might be even a scotch better than the beef. They come with a little coleslaw on top, which balances out the sweetness of the pork. They're worth a sampling if you make the ride to Little Bigs.
Even the fries show that homemade touch. All of the spuds are hand-cut and get a double frying to order, which makes for a fantastic balance of crispy exterior and smooth interior. They take longer than your average fast food fries, but they're more than worth the wait.
It's this kind of simple attention to detail that sets any restaurant apart from the ordinary, but when you add Caswell's talent and refinement you get something worth going back for. Next time I'm in Houston, I know I'll be ordering my burgers in threes.