By Frank Sabatini Jr.
In an age when you can out-bro your fellow bros by broadcasting your love for certain burgers, along comes a chainlet founded in Portland, Oregon that has yet to register on the radar of cool 30-somethings. Teens and fresh-faced college students, however, appear captivated.
I’m betting that the new Little Big Burger in Mission Valley won’t put a competitive dent in places like The Friendly in North Park or The Balboa Bar & Grill in Bankers Hill, where their burgers are trending wildly among savvier audiences. Ditto for dozens of other kitchens throughout Uptown and beyond (Burger Lounge, Cali “O” Burgers, Rocky’s Crown Pub, etc.), which probably aren’t flinching a spatula over this In-N-Out Burger wannabe.
The menu at Little Big Burger lists four food items in grade-school font: hamburger, cheeseburger, veggie burger and truffle fries. I consumed all of them over a couple of visits. They’re followed by two other entries: fountain soda and root beer float, neither of which I bothered ordering. (Give me cold beer or nothing with my burger.)
A sterile red-and-white scheme prevails, save for the bold geometric graphics on a large wall and the designer-gray color of another wall displaying merchandise.
Run by a franchisee through Chanticleer Holdings Inc. — the same company that owns Hooters — the mom-and-pop factor is blatantly absent. This is quite similar to all of the other burger chains operating within a two-mile radius, including The Habit, In-N-Out, Shake Shack and Fuddruckers. In comparison, Little Big Burger is younger, cuter and smaller, with only about 17 locations in several states since launching in 2010. More are in the pipeline locally and nationally.
Strangely, since opening its two locations in the area months ago — both here and in El Cajon — neither offers a working phone number. So for now, pick-up orders can be placed via the website.
I love burgers just as much as any ravenous kid or foodie hipster. These are made with black Angus beef by Jensen Meat Company in Otay Mesa, which uses a 75/25 lean-fat ratio. (Only the San Diego locations source from Jensen.)
In addition, some of the cheese options are rather chic for a fast-food concept; chevre and bleu reside among the usual lineup of cheddar, pepper jack and Swiss.
So why my lack of affection for these quarter-pound pucks?
When I asked one of the Gen Z grill cooks if the meat is seasoned, he answered, “Only with a little salt and pepper.” As it turned out, that was all I tasted. The flavor of the beef was overtaken.
Also, I’m not a fan of patties verging toward the shape of meatballs. These are small in diameter and chubby in stature. What you get are concentrated mouthfuls of meat in fewer bites compared to standard burgers — not necessarily a bad thing among some aficionados I know.
As the burgers sizzle on the griddle, they’re squirted periodically with water. The cook said the H2O helps lock in the moisture. He was right. It made for a reasonably juicy outcome.
What I did enjoy very much were the thick-sliced pickles on the burgers and the moist, springy brioche buns. As for the Camden’s catsup and “fry sauce” you’ll find in squeeze bottles throughout the smallish dining area, they were forgettable.
The catsup tasted flat. And the sauce — an equal mix of the catsup and Hellman’s mayo — struck me as unimaginative, like something that might have tasted edgy when I was 10 years old experimenting with condiments.
A couple days later I ordered the veggie burger and truffle French fries. I had high hopes for the mushroom-based patty “made by some woman in San Diego,” according to an enthusiastic employee. Rice, peas and carrots are apparently in the mix as well. But not even the tiny flecks of red chili peppers hiding in the pepper jack cheese I chose could pep up the nicely textured patty. Extra onions might have helped.
I’m officially done with truffle fries until places that serve them prove to me that the oil drizzled over the spuds is infused with actual truffles. Based on my research, the flavoring is an altered form of formaldehyde shunned by respected chefs. It’s a hyped product that will hopefully disappear one day from every commercial kitchen.
Little Big Burger will surely be well-served by its location in the Park Village Center, which offers a trolley station and ample parking for motorists willing to cheat on their favorite burger joints. My guess is that in their search for something sexier, few will say they found it here.
— Frank Sabatini Jr. is the author of “Secret San Diego” (ECW Press), and began his local writing career more than two decades ago as a staffer for the former San Diego Tribune. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.