Keith Coit's shiny silver diner on the corner of Washington Avenue and Waugh Drive reminds me more of a backwoods general store than a big-city deli. Inside, I expect to cross a creaky wooden floor under lazily twirling ceiling fans, past farmers gossiping at a domino table. I dunno, it's just a feeling I get; maybe it's because the Big Time Cafe looks a lot like a tin double-wide mobile home, although not so much now that Coit has extended the wooden deck the length of the front. Maybe it's Coit himself, who greets every customer with a down-home sociability despite the wicked sparks of city-slicker cynicism that occasionally escape him.
"Oh, I'm just a cowboy cook," he says with a laugh. "I learned most of it from my grandmother and figured out the rest in the Boy Scouts." But don't be fooled by the outward trappings of aw-shucks rusticity: Ol' Coit is dishing out world-class poor boy sandwiches, ingeniously engineered with superbly fresh ingredients. Coit explains that he and his assistant, Rafael, assemble the sandwiches one at a time to no particular blueprint. "So each one is unique, like a little work of art," he says with creative pride.
My personal favorite is his "Sharecropper" vegetarian number ($3.50), which sounds simple but reveals itself on first bite to be oh-so-sophisticated. Thin rounds of three kinds of squash -- zucchini, yellow squash and pale green mirliton -- are prettily layered with three kinds of cheese: Swiss, provolone and cheddar, plus a salad bowl's worth of cucumbers, tomatoes, green peppers, lettuce, black olives and onions on a fresh, soft roll. "It's easily our most labor-intensive sandwich," admits Coit. "We used to cringe when people ordered it."
The Sharecropper is dressed on both sides -- a nice touch, that -- with the tangy yogurt-mayo house dressing and lightly sprinkled with Cajun seasoning, but the surprise is that soft center layer of provolone, a texturally astute contrast to the crunchy vegetables. "Even the old boys who aren't remotely vegetarians are catching on to that sandwich," says Coit.
Then there's Big Time's Classic ($3.50), a humble-sounding ham and cheese sandwich. "You know, I don't think I ever had a ham sandwich I liked till now," marveled one of my friends. Coit adheres to his childhood rule of mustard on the bottom bread and mayo on the top, but now he uses an especially tender ham, sliced thin and folded thick, a layer of cheddar cheese and thin slices of onion, all jazzed up with that electrifying bottom swath of Creole mustard. "It's the good cheddar that makes the difference," Coit muses. "I won't use that American stuff. It's not really cheese."
It only makes sense that when a corned beef sandwich migrates from New York to Texas, it should be dubbed a Carpetbagger ($3.75). Coit piles on slices of peppery corned beef and a smooth layer of Swiss, then substitutes crisp cabbage coleslaw heavily laced with onions for the traditional sauerkraut. He has tinkered with the dressing, too, adding a little mayonnaise and a dash of cayenne pepper to yogurt to concoct his own palest-pink version.
I also like the Allie ($3.50) variation on a standard BLT, mostly because of its extraordinary bulk of thick, smoky bacon. I think that, ideally, the bacon and tomato should have a 1:1 ratio -- don't laugh, these details are crucial! -- so I usually ask for extra tomato; Coit's standard allotment is more like 3:1. Lettuce is by request only on the Allie, because as its namesake, Coit's grandmother, used to say, "If the tomatoes are good enough you don't even need that lettuce."
I'm in the minority when it comes to sides for the sandwiches: The majority of Coit's customers prefer the coleslaw, but I like the potato salad more. Both are available in eight-ounce, 12-ounce and 16-ounce servings, for $1.50, $2.25 and $3, respectively, although that might go up a bit in the weeks to come, Coit warns.
The coleslaw recipe was handed down by Mabel Greenwald, a Sugar Land church lady of Coit's childhood acquaintance. Miss Mabel's famous coleslaw dressing is a mayo-free, cooked vinegar rendition that keeps the cabbage eminently crisp, ready to be generously sprinkled with black pepper and celery seed. "It's the only recipe that isn't my own," he confesses. "And it's the only one that's written down, 'cause it has to be exact." On the potato salad front, Coit compromises on the mayonnaise-versus-mustard debate by blending more yogurt than mayo and a touch of mustard for his creamy, pale-gold dressing; the salad is liberally sprinkled with paprika and Cajun seasoning, green onions and fresh dill.
What you won't find in the potato salad or, indeed, in any of Coit's sandwiches, are pickles. The sandwiches sport slices of fresh cuke instead, and the potato salad is flavored with dill weed, not dill pickles. Does he have something against pickles, I wondered? "No, don't get me wrong," says Coit. "I love pickles. But it just got everybody to arguing. Talk about a controversy! There are too many kinds of pickles out there, what with cold pack and kosher and sweet and dill, and all my friends thought something different was the best." So he sidestepped the whole issue with what began as a gimmick; now the fresh cucumbers have become a Big Time trademark.
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A single conversation will convince you that Coit is endearingly possessed of novel and slightly eccentric enthusiasms. Instead of china kittens or souvenir spoons, though, he collects root beers and hot sauces. As of last week's count, his hot sauce collection officially topped 100 varieties; the regimental line of miniature, bright-red bottles marches clear down the length of the inside counter. Just ask him about root beer and brace yourself for an education; on my last visit he waxed eloquent on the virtues of a $6 bottle of Bavarian nutmeg varietal and mourned the loss of Galveston's historic Triple-X brand. Like any good bartender, Coit claims to know all his customers by their root beer preference. His favorite is the syrupy-sweet Abita, the only one made with real Louisiana cane sugar. I prefer the drier and slightly spicy Mad River, but there are ten more kinds to sample in the cooler. Or on a sunny afternoon, maybe a cold Lone Star (real) beer is the best bet for a seat on the deck.
Despite his self-professed "one pot cook" modesty, Coit clearly has devoted some serious thought to cuisine on his own time and is no stranger to commercial kitchens. He managed the UT alumni hangout Hofbrau Steaks for five years and spent time at the Cattle Guard restaurants in Houston and Austin. He's also a familiar face on Houston's nightclub circuit: He ran Sam's Place for a time and is still a partner in the Fabulous Satellite Lounge just down the street. All are places well known for a party atmosphere, a heritage Coit has no intention of abandoning now that he owns his own restaurant. His current plans include Louisiana crawfish boils on Tuesdays and eventually perhaps live music on weekends (though for now he closes at 9 p.m.), and "all kinds of other fun stuff."
"That's why I call it the 'Big Time,' " he says. "I want people to have fun here just all the time."
Big Time Cafe, 3700 Washington Avenue, (713)861-3010.