The Stomach that Never Sleeps, part 3: “First is the Worst”

I spent December 20 – 27, 2015 in New York City and ate a silly amount of burgers. Every day this week, I’ll document every fucking burger from my trip in a 5-part series of stories from what might be one of the most diverse burger cities in the damn world. Read part onepart two, part four and part five.

No. 8: Cheeseburger at Louis’ Lunch

Louis Lunch Burger

There are many disputed origins of the hamburger, but among them, the most widely accepted to be the true original can still be purchased in its original preparation, and it happens to be a two hour train ride from New York City. It’s the absolute number one burger destination in these United States and it’s closed on Mondays or I would have gone the day before.

I woke up early and took the subway from Brooklyn to Grand Central Station and bought a $40 round trip train ticket to New Haven, Connecticut. When we pulled into New Haven it was raining and I didn’t have an umbrella so I bought the shittiest umbrella ever made from a news stand at the New Haven train station for $13. I took the bus to Yale’s “Old Campus” area, which I found surprisingly developed in my historically-preserved-Virginia-bred observation–I passed a Shake Shack en route–and walked in the rain to Louis’ Lunch.

Louis lunch buildingLouis Lassen opened a food cart in 1886 selling eggs and butter, then added lunch items to his repertoire in 1895, including steak. According to legend, in 1900, at a customer’s request for a quick lunch to eat on the go, he put some ground steak trimmings on sliced bread and thereby invented the hamburger. He moved the whole operation into the building pictured above in 1917, and they’ve been cranking out burger patties on sliced bread ever since.

I walked into the teeny shack to see a ridiculously small bar with two dudes working and no visible kitchen when I realize the small bar is the kitchen. One guy takes three things: orders, cash (only!), and absolutely no shit from anybody. The other’s just cooking burgers continuously the entire time I’m there. I later learned the cook is Jeff Lassen, grandson of Louis, and current owner of Louis Lunch.

The menu is wonderfully simple: hamburger and cheeseburger. You can add tomatoes or onions or both, and those are your only options. Sides are potato salad or chips, and there’s an array of bottled soft drinks. That’s it. I got a cheeseburger with onions.

The place is packed, mostly full of families, which worked for me since I wanted to sit at the bar and watch the action, and a few regulars who were accustomed to the crowds. While I’m there a guy pulls up to the bar and chats with the guys working, asks about their kids, bitches about his day and when he orders “two cheese plain,” the order-taking guy goes, “already got it in.” Another guy’s in a hurry and standing in the window giving the guys a hard time and Lassen goes, “give this guy a coffee so we don’t have to hear his yakkity-yakkin'”. This is how these guys actually talk.

I loved the rapport, I loved the attitude, I loved how cramped it was, and I loved that there were regulars despite the tourists. This was my kinda joint, the salt-of-the-earth kinda joint that doesn’t give a shit if you use the word “joint” three times in one sentence.

Right behind the bar, they have three specially-made cast-iron vertical broilers that when opened reveal flames going up both sides. They’re all the original broilers that Louis Lassen had commissioned when he built Louis’ Lunch. Each houses a cage holding–I believe–eight beef patties at a time, including a slice of onion, if you got it, pinched between the cage and the patty. The cage is inserted into the broiler which then cooks both sides of the patties simultaneously. Sliced bread is toasted and coated with cheese spread, if you got it, then assembled with the patty, sprinkled with salt, topped with tomato, if you got it, cut diagonally and served on a paper plate.

Louis Lunch cross section

It’s probably the worst hamburger I’ve ever eaten.

The cooking method makes absolutely no sense. Holding it vertically ensures the grease all drips out and does nothing to contribute to the flavor, and you get absolutely no sear. All you’re really doing is cooking the beef, which would have been fine if there were more than a sprinkle of seasoning on it. The onions turned out more burnt than charred, dominating the flavor with total bitterness. The cheese spread did nothing. The sliced bread–which I expected to be my biggest gripe–worked fine. It was dry and well-toasted, and held up despite getting soaked with beef juice. They have a strict no ketchup policy posted on every available surface, and ketchup would have helped nearly every aspect of this sandwich. I get that they want the beef flavor to dominate, but ketchup helps, especially if you want to skimp on the seasoning. I probably should have gotten an out-of-season tomato to give it some flavor, but when presented with the option, I don’t do that. On the whole, this burger is a big, dumb mess, rife with questionable decisions they proudly, stubbornly hold steadfast.

They had a good idea that other people took and made better. And that kind of makes the hamburger the most American thing, like, ever.

Including the train ticket to New Haven, this $6 burger is the most expensive one I ate, but I have no regrets. This is the Patient Zero of burgers! The #1 burger in the New York much-greater area that I absolutely had to eat, and it wasted time that I could have spent eating burgers in Manhattan that are actually delicious, but I’m not mad about it. I literally walked away laughing at how fun this entry would be to write, having earned not the most difficult but perhaps the most important merit badge for a burger-interested individual to obtain.

But seriously, this burger’s fucking terrible and I would not recommend taking a trip specifically to New Haven to eat one.

Tune in tomorrow for continued burger eating as I return to Manhattan from my detour and then spend Wednesday running around trying to squeeze in some burgers before my parents show up. 

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