Cheap Eats: Little's Food Store
Cabbagetown grocer gets its grill onFriday March 9, 2012 08:00 am EST
Little's Food Store has one foot planted firmly in the past, and one stretching and tapping into the here and now. Its precursor, Little's Grocery, was a Cabbagetown mainstay through thick and thin, opening up in 1929 and surviving on into the 21st century before shutting its doors in 2005. A hand-painted sign a few doors down declares appreciation for the Little family and their years of service to this little community. The remains of their grocery and grill have been resurrected twice now in the past few years, and the current incarnation walks the line between reverence and rebellion. The staff is young and the vibe is a blend of old and new. It feels like going into an old relative's house and seeing that the grandkids are slowly taking over, keeping the antiques in place but pumping out subversive hip-hop that makes the old dusty things rattle and shake.
You push open the almost-falling-off red door, walk in past some vegetables and fruit, along a short counter and stools facing a display case of Cabbagetown memorabilia, and up to the register to order. Appropriately for a Georgia grill of this age, the menu revolves around burgers and hot dogs — "little burgers," bigger burgers, dogs, sandwiches, breakfast basics all day, and a few daily specials like pork tacos or a lemon shrimp po' boy that keep things fresh. Many of the breads and some pastries on the counter come courtesy of H&F Bread Co., the purveyor seemingly penetrating every nook and cranny of this city with its bakery magic. The buns for the "little burgers," though, are pillowy soft delights shipped in from Martin's in Pennsylvania (the much-shouted-about Shake Shack in New York uses Martin's, too, so Little's is in good company).
While you wait for the grill to get grooving on your order, you can browse the market and knock out some of your weekly errands. Pick up a copy of the neighborhood newspaper, maybe a six-pack of SweetWater or Dogfish Head IPA, or even some NyQuil or Neosporin, whatever sundries your body may require in addition to the sustenance from behind the counter. Artwork from famed folk artist R.A. Miller oversees stacks of baked beans, jars of Nutella, and unusual local items like Cabbagetown's own Preserving Now apple butter or bumbleberry jam. But then you glance back over at the counter and see that plates are pouring forth from the open kitchen.
The "little burgers" sing out like superb little sampled beats from the past — a bit like Krystal's slightly heftier and much better looking cousin — with those achingly soft buns, charred-crisp-around-the-edges thin beef patties, a healthy whomp of yellow mustard, the requisite pickle slices, and a tangle of thin onion slices blasted to the pinnacle of luscious limpness. Served up over black-and-white checkerboard paper as you stare across the counter at knickknacks of old Atlanta, these burgers prove the merits of nostalgia. And the chili version? I'm not typically one to go for chili on top of my burger or hot dog, but Little's chili manages to elevate the little burger with a dark rich slick of ultra beefiness (beef-finesse?). You can trade up to a bigger version, or even a "natural" made with White Oak Pastures organic grass-fed beef, but the regular old "little burger" is where it's at.
As for the hot dogs, the chili slaw version kicks out like a remixed Southern classic. The main distinction here is in the spicy slaw, which employs some stealth tahini and Sriracha alongside cabbage and radish to balance out that rich chili and all-beef dog. The jumbo version features a big dog from the revered Patak Meats, but the baguette roll encasing that dog is far too big and way too bready — the proportions alone issue a warning of doom. The po' boy specials also use the same roll, and also seem overwhelmed by its girth. Skip those, or maybe ask at the counter if they can ditch the roll and line up two of those Martin's rolls instead.
On the flip side, the daily specials show that the bread selection can kick everything up a notch as well. A "veggie sammy" on H&F marble rye combines a decadently crunchy and well-seasoned fried portobello with tender avocado, fresh spinach and tomato, a bit of mayo, and a sweet balsamic reduction soaking into that flavorful rye. It plays like brilliance between (and including) two slices of bread. A side of fried pickles makes use of the same batter as the portobello, also to great effect, served up with a refreshing dill ranch. And simplicity sings forth in the french fries — freshly cut and full of potato flavor.
Seeing the mix of young and old alike bellying up to the counter for lunch, Little's Food Store still seems like an anchor for surrounding Cabbagetown. The market and the conversation and the kitchen thump thump thump, keeping the beat of the community. On my most recent visit, In the Heat of the Night was playing on the TV opposite the counter, just another small Southern town sitting somewhere between the past and the present.