Although the claim is contested by a few rogue burger historians in the Midwest, it's generally accepted that the hamburger was created circa 1900 by Louis Lassen at Louis Lunch, perhaps New Haven's greatest landmark. The tiny building near Yale has a German train station vibe, and you can feel the ghosts of burgers past as soon as you walk in. There's a definite time warp at play: the lighting is very dim, giving an eerie glow to the wooden, graffiti-carved booths and tables that are built onto the walls. Seats for one on the far wall have smaller school desk platforms built in. The best place to sit is at the kitchen counter stools, where you can view the burgers being cooked on century-old cooking aparatus. Patties made by hand from fresh beef get a quick salting before being inserted into a cage that secures them vertically inside the cooker. A trio of ancient metal contraptions—which would not be out of place in several Tim Burton movies I can think of—hit the vertically-held patties with flames from both sides.
Instead of the classic hamburger bun—remember, there were no hamburger buns in existence when the first hamburger was invented— Louis Lunch serves its "hamburger sandwich" on white bread toast, and it's a light toast at that. This is a simple treatment that at first glance seems underwhelming or even half-assed, but somehow it works. The initial idea was to provide a holder for the beef, so in that regard it succeeds: it doesn't get loose, it doesn't get soaked and most importantly, it doesn't compete with the beef for attention. If the beef does its part (and granted, that's a pretty big if), isn't that really all you need?
In theory, the vertical flame cooking method sounds suspect: not only can you lose the juices that might be retained on a flat top, but you lose twice as much due to the positioning. In practice, that wasn't even the slightest bit of a problem on either of my well spaced visits. The flame gave the exterior just enough crusting, char and light char flavor to get the job done but without any char taking over the show. That crust actually wound up glistening as if dipped in meat juices, but that was just natural beef sweat. Inside, the texture was soft, gentle, "meat noodly" (to borrow a burger buddy's favorite expression) and perfectly cooked to the requested medium rare. On the recent visit, juices went well past trickle and into free flowing mode throughout the entire session.
The only area where the beef fell a little short was flavor. There certainly wasn't anything wrong with the flavor and I wouldn't even say it was lacking. It just wasn't exciting. But it was beefy and it was clean, with very minimal seasoning. This was no fancy blend; just simple, fresh tasting beef in its pristine natural glory.
Most burger and burgercentric joints make their living and notoriety off a wide variety of toppings. At Louis Lunch they've garnered more notoriety off what you can't have on your burger, and that's ketchup. They not only don't serve it but will toss your ass out if they catch you smuggling in your own.
Options are limited to tomato, onion and cheese, and I tried all three. The first two are done with no problems but little fanfare, and the onions in particular (lightly grilled, large dice) are kept sparse in deference to the beef. You can barely make out the cheese (a semi-wet spread with the same consistency as peanut butter, applied sparingly), but it's not there to do any heavy lifting. It's more of a spotter, lending just enough assistance to let the beef do its thing.
Beef Aficionado Nick Solares makes a very valid point in his 2008 review (linked below) for A Hamburger Today: "I find it curious that adding ketchup is shunned because it was not part of the original recipe, yet using the Velveeta-like spread that was added to the recipe back in the 1970s is somehow OK."
The Fries (and such)
No fries are available. Keeping things simple even on the sides, Louis Lunch instead offers bagged potato chips, but why bother? You're better off skipping these and just splitting an extra burger. Or "burger sandwich," for you semanticians.
Now that I think about it, the potato chips are an excellent choice for another reason: fries would just make most people miss the ketchup even more.
Does the bread disqualify this burger from being a burger because it's not on a bun? I say no. Is a patty melt disqualified from being a burger for not being served on a bun? I say hogwash.
This is a gimmick-free burger whose enjoyment may be directly correlated to what your expectations are going in and what burgers you've had recently. On my first visit I expected burger nirvana and was a bit underwhelmed. On my second visit I knew what I was in for and was pleasantly surprised. That may be partly credited to my having had a very complex burger with a sophisticated beef blend just a few days earlier, so the contrast stood out more. I now like to think of Louis Lunch as the burger equivalent of the Rolling Stones' Beggars Banquet coming on the heels of Their Satanic Majesties Request: jarringly simple but very effective.
The Bottom Line
Is it one of the very best burgers I've had? No, but it's a good one.
If undistracted, unadulterated and unfussy is how you approach the beef in your burger, Louis Lunch offers arguably the best example and inarguably the most historic. Regardless of where you stand on the simplicity continuum, Louis Lunch is a must-visit for the atmosphere alone.
Nick Solares review of Louis Lunch for A Hamburger Today
Yelp reviews of Louis Lunch
Urbanspoon reviews of Louis Lunch
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