Sunday, February 15, 2009

Sandwiches big and small (Little Bigs and Lee's Sandwiches)

Little Bigs is a new slider stand on Montrose near Westheimer. It is owned by the same guys who own Reef. Although it just opened, Little Bigs is a hit. I went on a Thursday at 11:15 a.m. - before most restaurants get their first lunch customers. Little Bigs was packed.

I watched as the kitchen delivered a plate of fries topped with a single, tiny burger to a lanky high-school student. He stared at the slider in disbelief. "That's it?" he asked. "What a rip."

Sliders and sandwich economics

This is not a review. It is a tale of sandwich economics. Still, I should start by saying that Little Bigs sliders taste pretty good. I tried all three kinds.

The first was a burger with onions and sauteed onions. I am no expert on burgers. Little Bigs' 3 oz. beef slider was fine. It was a little dull. But then, I find most burgers a little dull.

The 'shroom slider was more interesting. It consisted of a portobello mushroom with a crispy crust.

Easily the best was easily the chicken slider. Little Bigs calls it "all-natural, hand-breaded spicy chicken." It was indeed spicy and had a very crispy crunch. The flavor and texture of this little sandwich puts Chick-fill-A to shame.

All three sliders were served on delicious yeast rolls. It was primarily the rolls that elevated these them above ordinary fast food.

Yet the most remarkable quality of these sandwiches is their size. Each slider is about four bites. They are undeniably cute. And their tiny size means you can eat all three kinds of sandwiches without getting very full.

Then there is the question of price. A meal at Little Bigs will cost most folks around $10. One slider is $2.08. Three sliders are $5.78. Cheese is extra. Fries (which I did not try) are $1.62. Shakes are $3.70.

So was the high-school student's $2 slider "a rip"? That question took me a whole week to ponder. And I did not find the answer until I went to a Vietnamese sandwich shop.

More sandwich for the $ at Lee's Sandwiches

Lee's Sandwiches is a wildly popular sandwich shop, on Bellaire outside the Beltway. It serves Banh Mi -- Vietnamese sandwiches on French bread. Lee's, part of a California-based chain, is perhaps the largest sandwich shop I have seen. On a Sunday afternoon around 2:00 p.m., it had well over 100 customers.

Lee's grilled pork sandwich is a monster. It comes on a loaf of French bread more than a foot long. The loaf is filled with grilled pork, marinated onions, carrots, and cilantro.

This is not the best Banh Mi in Houston. But it is pretty good. The French bread is fantastic -- crunchy on the outside, soft in the middle. The condiments are tasty and varied. Yet I have had much better grilled Vietnamese pork elsewhere. It was overly fatty, and the marinade was not as flavorful as some Vietnamese pork. Still, the sandwich was respectable.

Lee's giant Banh Mi easily is as much food as 3 Little Bigs Sliders. It costs $2.45. Double meat is an extra $0.75. For Banh Mi in Houston, this sandwich was average price. But compared to the cost of a meal at Little Bigs, it was a bargain.

What explains the price difference?

Why is a meal at Little Bigs so much more expensive? The answer lies in the uniqueness of a tiny sandwich. There is something special about these diminutive sandwiches that captures the imagination. We like them because they are small, cute, squeezeable, bite-sized.

But more importantly, Little Bigs' sliders do not have competition. Lee's competes with dozens of Banh Mi shops in Houston. That keeps the price low. But Little Bigs (as far as I know) serves the only fast-food sliders in Houston. So when Houstonians feel like eating a cute little cheeseburger without going to a fancy restaurant, there is only one place to go.

So I applaud the founders of Little Bigs. They have found an ingenious way to make us pay more for less food. They will make a lot of money -- at least until 20 other slider joints open around town.

UPDATE - It's over already: Hours after this post, I saw a new ad for Burger King sliders. The message? Hot young women adore little sliders because they are so cute and squeezeable.

I'm sure Little Bigs sliders are better than Burger King. But Little Bigs' monopoly of the Houston slider market is over before it began. After all, it wouldn't be fair to allow just one business to capitalize on all the extra money that the American consumer will pay just to get a cute, tiny, little sandwich.


Brelleva said...


Please email about your blog.

thank you,
Brian Relleva
Where The Locals Eat

Frank Schulte-Ladbeck said...

Lee's might not be the best, but it is consistently good fare. However, you failed to mention what my children love best, the moon cakes. They devour them before those treats have cooled down.

John said...

I find small portions refreshing. One thing I noticed when I first moved to Houston was that portions in restaurants are noticably larger than most places I've lived (Washington, Boston). Which is a good value, I suppose, except that I find myself constantly unable to finish what's put in front of me, or regretting it when I do. And at some places (Barnaby's comes to mind) it's just absurd - a lunch salad there is basically four lunches; they must throw out an enormous amount of food.

And now, when I'm back in Washington, I find myself looking at plates and thinking, "That's small." But when I finish eating, I am satisfied.

So I'm intrigued by Little Big's.

Rubiao said...

Two burger posts eh, I think a trend I see. I live about a block from the much hyped Little Big's and do not share the enthusiasm, but I didn't like the sliders at Reef either. I find them consistently overcooked, bland and boring, the chicken worse than the beef. Though I did think the fries were fantastic, which shouldn't be hard, yet seems to be near impossible.

What I do like is the trend that continues around Houston (on the heels of the trend around the world), with our great chefs opening up casual everyday restaurants, though I wish Caswell would have opened up a fish sandwich shop or an old school oyster bar. We now have La Dolce Vita and Little Bigs within a block of each other, both enormous successes thus far. Even Robert Del Grande opened up a burger joint. And the best part about Little Big's is that its open until 4 in the morning, though BBs across the street is much better.

As for Vietnamese sandwiches, they are always cheaper along with most of the fare at Vietnamese restaurants, consistently the best lunch deals in town. Last night I made my own with some leftover braised pork belly and fresh vegetables from the Saturday markets that were delicious and frighteningly cheap.

anonymouseater said...

Frank - Sorry. I was too full after my sandwich for a moon cake. Maybe next time.

John - I like the small sizes too. For years fast food restaurants have been increasing portion sizes. Significantly, Burger King now is selling tiny burgers. But they are selling six sliders to an order.

Rubaio - I agree that it is refreshing for chefs like Caswell to open casual restaurants. I wish they all had as many customers as Little Bigs.

John said...

[different John] I had a terrible experience at Little Bigs, and have seen a few blogs and spoken to a few people with similar bad luck. The beef version I had was mushy, not so much undercooked as not grilled, no crispy edge, like the griddle wasn't turned up high enough. Pretty much like a slice of meatloaf. Cheese costs extra, and the "slice" I got was literally the size of a quarter! The grilled onions were likewise skimpy, maybe 3-4 tiny strands -- it didn't look anything like the pile of onions in the photo on Alison Cook's blog. So maybe it was just poor execution, and I should give them another shot, but I can see hitting Smashburger another 4 times before I head back to Little Bigs. I will admit that the fries were outstanding. The chocolate shake was nothing special (whereas the Smashburger ones are great).
-- John C

HoustonWok said...

ahh sliders, the first time I have had a slider was at White Castles while living up north. They are fun to eat.

phi s t y l e said...

i like the sliders at Little Bitty Burger Barn ( the bun is grilled and crispy, and there are more grilled onions. and it's greasier. =) they are 4 for $3.95.

i do have to say that the quality of the ingredients at Little Bigs does seem to be better.

i'm not sure what the official definition of "slider" is. i assumed it consisted of (1) being small and (2) having grilled onions. the BK sliders are probably better described as "mini burgers." it just tastes like a normal plain burger (no onions), but small.

Anonymous said...

The food at Little Big's has been very mediocre the two times i've been. This is defintiely a place that has not lived up to the hype.

tablet pc tienda said...

It won't succeed as a matter of fact, that's exactly what I think.