Review: Gourmet sandwiches at The Little Hippo hit all the right flavors

Also on the menu: a phenomenal ginger carrot soup, a divine potato salad included with your order, and cocktails

Review: Gourmet sandwiches at The Little Hippo hit all the right flavors
The meatball sandwich, served only on Mondays

Photography by Martha Williams

The first time I went to Jamie and Aaron Russell’s outdoor sandwich restaurant, on the main drag in Avondale Estates, was shortly after it opened in December 2023. It was love at first sight. At that time it was called The Velvet Hippo, named after their silky and sturdy pit bull mix rescue. The place was simply perfect: a great space with Astroturf, surrounded by amenities such as overhead fans and heaters, landscaping, and enclosed toilets. Beyond the creature comforts were the distinctive sandwiches, sides, and cocktails. By February, Meatball Monday had been added (yay!), and the name had been changed to The Little Hippo (okay).

Unfortunately for the youngish couple, a lounge in Durham, North Carolina, had already federally registered the name. One crucial step in starting a new business of any kind is making sure that no one else owns the name you are considering. If a restaurant is called The Real Something Something, you can be sure that there has been a dispute or lawsuit over copyright infringement. But The Little Hippo works for me, both as a name and as a concept.

Gourmet sandwich shops are a significant trend across America (Bunk and the more recent Sammich in Portland, Oregon; Turkey and the Wolf in New Orleans; and the gorgeous but pricey Bona Fide Deluxe—opened in February 2023 by the hipsters at Banshee—near the Edgewood–Candler Park MARTA station). Meanwhile, there are already plenty of great sandwiches in Atlanta—the hot pastrami on rye at the General Muir, the unbelievably cheap egg banh mi at Lee’s Bakery, the spiedie (alas, temporarily retired) at Ticonderoga Club, the Israeli falafel pita at Rina—but nothing iconic. New Orleans has the muffuletta and the po’ boy, Philadelphia the cheesesteak and the roast pork, New York the mile-high deli meats on rye, and Maine the lobster roll.

What many people don’t know about the Russells is that Aaron used to work for Günter Seeger at The Dining Room at the Ritz-Carlton Buckhead, and that he became the official pastry chef of Seeger’s on West Paces Ferry Road. He was nominated for a national James Beard Award. After the unfortunate closure of the high-end Seeger’s, Aaron became co-chef at the much-beloved (now-defunct) Chocolate Bar in downtown Decatur. Many, myself included, still pine for that magic caramel popcorn, which brought in orders even from heavyweight local corporations. I also crave his homemade Rice Krispie treats, made with brown butter, at his and his wife’s Poor Hendrix in East Atlanta. Jamie left her career in academia to run the dining room of Poor Hendrix, one of the true jewels in town. The young couple excels at keeping their places casual, with menus that are short, sweet, and affordable given the high quality of both ingredients and preparation.

A friend of the Russells owned a lot where a dilapidated shed once sat, just past the Tudor stretch. Per the City of Avondale Estates, he was able to raze the building if he rebuilt in the same spot. Rebuilt it was, using cheap siding, and the Russells rented it. The cooler is in the backyard, and ordering takes place at a tiny counter.

I forgive the restaurant for its bizarre hours (just like Poor Hendrix, it’s open Mondays but closed Tuesdays and Wednesdays). I am not crazy about people bringing their dogs to The Little Hippo, oblivious to the fact that their pet may disgrace the Astroturf or bite a fellow canine. But I adore the sandwiches, on soft potato rolls dotted with sesame seeds or classic hoagie buns. My favorite is the Vietnamese-style fried fish, with all the accoutrements of a banh mi jammed into a soft roll. The lamb burger is actually a merguez, a spicy North African lamb sausage, sticking out at both ends in what is a magical, aggressively tasty combination. The hoagies are great, too, with fillings such as Italian meatballs (Monday only), fried mortadella, or Italian charcuterie. Vegetarians get a pita with beets, tahini, and cucumbers. I am also appreciative that none are of a size that could dislocate my jaw. The menu contains more than sandwiches: a phenomenal ginger carrot soup, a divine potato salad included with your order, cocktails such as the Negroni Spritz and a passionate “Marg” that’s strong on the silver tequila and the Tajín spice. I don’t typically need a dessert after a sandwich, but only a fool would fail to order the fudgy chocolate brownie.

Dogs—Little Hippo not included—gambol around. There are children, old folks, and pretty much anyone who understands that fun awaits under a sky that could be blue or gray, in a place where the food doesn’t cost the now-usual arm and leg.

This article appears in our June 2024 issue.