Little Bitty Burger Barn
Little Bitty's Sliders" were four mini hamburgers topped with caramelized onions served on tiny toasted rolls. The cute little burgers seemed like the thing to order at Little Bitty Burger Barn, a cute little burger joint located in a double-wide trailer on Pinemont near Antoine.
My dining companion, a burger-obsessed Aggie named John Bebout, applied salt, pepper and mustard to the sliders and asked the woman behind the counter to give us some mayo. After the doctoring, they tasted terrific.
"I give these an A+," Bebout said.
I ordered a half-pound cheeseburger, medium-rare. It was comprised of two quarter pound patties topped with melted American cheese squares, garnished with lettuce, tomato, onions and pickles on a shiny, lightly toasted bun. I also requested mayo, but I didn't ask for mustard, because I had learned on a previous visit that they only have the yellow stuff in the kitchen. Meanwhile, there is a squeeze bottle of Gulden's brown mustard on each table, so if you like brown mustard better than yellow, you're better off applying your own.
After decorating the bun with Gulden's, I cut my cheeseburger in half and gave some to Bebout to sample. He gave my cheeseburger a "C+."
We were making progress, anyway. When I arrived at Little Bitty Burger Barn that rainy afternoon, I found Bebout with a white paper bag in front of him. "Did you already order?" I asked.
"No, I brought my lunch," he said. He proceeded to pull an Antone's poor boy and sack of chips out of the bag and set them on the table. "You go ahead and order; I can't eat the food they serve here," he said. Bebout is prone to burger drama.
For fear we'd be thrown out of the restaurant for bringing in our own food, I begged Bebout to reconsider. It turns out this wasn't his first trip to the Little Bitty Burger Barn.
He told me he had waited in line for 20 minutes on the previous Saturday afternoon to get lunch. He described the overcooked and dried-out burger patty he was served as "Frisbee-like." The french fries were greasy, dark brown and atrocious, he said.
Bebout holds that Christian's Tailgate and Lankford Grocery are the only two decent burgers in Houston. He insists that burgers should be cooked on a griddle, never a grill. And he doesn't eat burnt, greasy, limp French fries, whether they are hand-cut or not.
I had also been here before, but unlike Bebout, I had high hopes for the Little Bitty Burger Barn after my first visit. The burger patties were made from never-been-frozen meat, although I had to admit they could use some seasoning. But after looking at a few extremely dark burgers on the way in, I had the foresight to order my first one medium-rare. There wasn't any pink color left in the meat patty by the time it got to my table, but at least it wasn't a Frisbee.
Before Bebout could whip out his poor boy, I asked him if he had ever tried the sliders. He had never heard of the tiny burgers before, so I lured him to the counter. The friendly woman who works the cash register convinced Bebout to sample the sliders.
Little Bitty's little bitty burgers were a revelation. Unlike the regular burgers, which are char-grilled, the sliders are cooked on the griddle, so they stay moist in the middle, but get crisp on the edges. And unlike the regular burger rolls, which are lightly toasted, the mini-rolls we sampled were toasted until they were dark brown and crunchy.
Despite the fact that he entered the restaurant carrying an Antone's poor boy, the sliders were so good, Bebout was forced to add Little Bitty Burger Barn to his burger list.
The term "sliders" is associated with White Castle, America's oldest hamburger fast food chain. White Castle's mini-burgers sold for a nickel apiece in the 1940s. In White Castle lingo, a customer who consumes six sliders at a time is known as a "slider pilot." The White Castle chain trademarked the term "Slyders" in 1994.
Their late-night availability is part of the allure of White Castle's itty-bitty burgers (some locations are open 24 hours). And their fame has spread beyond the 11-state region where the restaurants are located, thanks to the 2004 stoner movie classic Harold & Kumar Go to White Castle.
There aren't any locations in Texas, but you can buy White Castle burgers in the freezer case at the grocery store. A box of nine sliders is currently going for $3.79 at the Kroger on Montrose near Westheimer.
Texans are more apt to swear allegiance to Krystal, the second-oldest fast food hamburger chain in America, which first opened in Chattanooga in 1932. Their tiny hamburger is considered by many to be "the slider of the South." The Krystal chain entered bankruptcy in the late 1990s but has lately reemerged under new ownership. The first of the new Krystal hamburger restaurants in Houston opened at 1623 FM 1960, just west of I-45, last year.
But the spread of the modern slider seems to have started in 1995, when two Manhattan restaurant owners teamed up to create a better version of the bite-size burger. Their restaurant, Sassy's Sliders, at the corner of Third Avenue and 86th Street, was an instant hit. It has been ranked among the top dozen burger joints in the city by The New York Times. Its burgers currently sell for $1.09 each.
Manhattan chefs have toyed with upscale sliders ever since Sassy's came on the scene. My friend Ed Levine at SeriousEats.com waxed poetic over the Waygu sliders on brioche buns dusted with fleur de sel that he found at Bouchon Bakery, even though they cost him five bucks apiece.
The best sliders in Houston are probably the ones at Reef. Three go for eight bucks on the menu, but try them during weekday happy hour when they sell for a dollar apiece at the bar.
Reef chef Bryan Caswell once worked in the kitchen of Jean-Georges in New York, and he used to eat sliders at Sassy's late nights after the bars closed. He put them on his menu mainly as a way to use up ribeye steak trimmings, so the meat is top-notch. And he sized the burger to fit the restaurant's excellent house-baked dinner rolls. Like Little Bitty Burger Barn, Caswell tops his sliders with caramelized onions.
Little Bitty Burger Barn's hand-cut fries are an enigma.
As Reef's Bryan Caswell told me, fries are not easy. He said that they hand-cut the french fries when he worked at Bank by Jean-Georges in the Hotel Icon. But he abandoned the practice when he opened Reef.
Hand-cut fries have to be cooked twice to taste any good, Caswell said. And they have to be cooled off in between the first and second cooking. Unless you have an expensive blast chiller, the logistics are a nightmare.
But if you aren't going to go to the trouble of doing them right, then you might as well serve frozen fries. Most of the American public considers McDonald's fries to be the gold standard, Caswell argues, and McDonald's uses frozen potatoes.
"So what makes hand-cut fries come out dark brown, greasy and limp?" I asked Caswell. He said maybe it had something to do with the potatoes, but he wasn't sure.
In the 2001 book How to Read a French Fry, Los Angeles Times food editor Russ Parsons wrote that over time, the oil in a fryer goes through five stages. "By examining a piece of fried food, you can tell a lot about the oil's age."
Brand new "break-in oil" yields white french fries with raw centers and none of the aromas we associate with fried foods. After a few batches, break-in oil becomes "fresh oil," which produces a bit of browning and a little crispness. Fresh oil in turn becomes "optimum oil," which makes crisp, golden-brown fries with rigid edges. As it begins to break down, "degrading oil" turns the fries brown and limp. And if you don't replace it quickly, degrading oil becomes "runaway oil," which yields extremely dark, greasy fries.
Parsons provides lots more details about the chemical processes that cause these changes. And he intriguingly notes that old-time fryer men add a tablespoon of old oil to the new stuff when they change their oil to get to the optimum stage quicker.
Is the problem with Little Bitty's fries in the potatoes or in the oil? I don't know, but I hope they get it worked out before I go back, because I'm craving those sliders. Maybe I'll just switch to potato chips.
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