On occasion, you run into little joints that have some culinary heritage to their offerings in addition to the food. Examples include Phillipe’s in Los Angeles (a leading contender for the invention of the French Dip) and Matt’s Bar in Minneapolis (one contender for the invention of the Jucy Lucy), although like any sort of invention claims, both of these come with some controversy.
When it comes to the idea of who invented the modern hamburger, Louis Lunch is one credible claimant. Now located on Crown Street in New Haven, Louis Lunch has been around since 1895 (in locations ranging from a street cart on Meadow Street to the current permanent location), and has been serving hamburgers for most of that time. Regardless of primacy, however, Louis Lunch is interesting since they haven’t made any significant changes to their menu or hamburger preparation the entire time, and are still serving hamburgers prepared pretty much the same way they were done the beginning of the last century.
Unlike a typical burger joint that is either frying the burgers on a griddle or broiling them on a grill, Louis Lunch prepares their burgers by hand-forming patties, inserting the patties into a little grating, and inserting this grating into one of three antique 1898 vertical broilers located behind the counter. They are then grilled to the desired level (they claim the standard order is medium rare, although on my several visits to Louis I’ve never been able to get less than what I’d call medium well). When finished, they are pulled out and assembled into sandwiches on toasted white bread (Louis Lunch significantly predates the invention of the “hamburger bun”) with optional toppings of cheese sauce, onion, and tomato. No other toppings or condiments are available, and, indeed, asking for ketchup and mustard will get you a brushoff, or maybe even result in your being asked to leave.
With all this, what the result of all this effort? On my last trip I ordered a “ham works” (hamburger with all the toppings, which is, well, just onion and tomato) and a white birch beer (typical New Haven beverage), and after a good 10 minute wait (we arrived at the tail end of the lunch rush) my sandwich came out. There is a lot going for the burger at Louis, the meat is good quality (they grind and mix their own blend), and the method of preparation leaves them juicy (although, as mentioned above, I always think they overcook the burgers a bit). The resulting burger really is an exercise in simplicity, since the bread and scant toppings really leave you focusing on the meat. What works here is the juiciness of the meat and a decent sear. To be honest, however, these burgers, while good, aren’t top 10 material for me, but I do enjoy coming here for Louis Lunch’s dedication to still doing burgers using their classic methods.
Another joy of Louis Lunch, however, is the quaint little building. Built out of components of the old lunch cart and donated building materials, it sports a unique interior, including some rather interesting seating (two of the smallest booths I’ve ever seen, and an odd row of what are best described as writing desks). The woodwork is ancient, having had decades of people’s initials carved into them, leaving an interesting texture to the resulting wood.
So, if you are a hamburger fan and have any interest in the culinary history of the hamburger, Louis Lunch is a mandatory stop. If just looking for a good burger? You might want to look somewhere else