NEW HAVEN -- Louis' Lunch has been making hamburgers so long, you might think they invented them. Actually, the owners say they did.
Louis' claims a spot in hamburger history as the birthplace of the burger on bread. In 1900, the story goes, a hurried customer asked for a meal he could take with him. Owner Louis Lassen launched a culinary revolution by placing a beef patty between two slices of bread. Too bad he didn't get the intellectual property rights for it.
Fortunately, Louis' today is living history: Louis Lassen's great-grandsons, Jeff Lassen and Ken Lassen Jr., now make Louis' juicy burgers. Grandson Ken, now 90, still comes in once a week to make sure his sons are doing things right, and his wife, Lee, helps with the books.
Upon entering Louis', a diner's attention is immediately drawn to the three cast-iron cooking contraptions on the counter. The freestanding, vertical gas broilers look like 2-foot-tall tin men. These devices from 1898, which cooked Louis' famed first hamburger, look as though they should either be attached to a locomotive or on display in a museum. (The restaurant opened in 1895.)
The "new" 1929 radiant gas toaster and sliced white bread in brown bags sit next to the broilers. The chrome and porcelain toaster is like a Ferris wheel for bread -- slices go up in full view to be toasted on the way down. Behind the 10-seat, L-shaped lunch counter, Jeff Lassen makes burgers while another employee takes customers' orders.
The orders, like Louis' menu, are short. You decide how many burgers you want and what you want to drink. The best answer to the latter question is a locally made Foxon Park birch beer.
Biting into one of Louis' burgers brings the full flavor of history. That's no coincidence, since the Lassens have maintained the practice of grinding their own beef on site, every day. Ken Lassen Jr. makes the burgers from five cuts of meat. "My father used to taste the meat raw every day to make sure it's good," Jeff Lassen said. "My brother still does that."
The Lassens order only enough beef for the day to ensure they serve the freshest burgers possible. That means they could run out by closing time. Consider yourself warned if you drop in near the end of a weekend night.
Asking for a "cheese works," an "everything," or just a burger will all bring the same results: more than a quarter-pound of beef on toasted white bread with cheddar cheese, tomatoes, and grilled onions. The cheese is another "new" addition -- the Lassens have been spreading the melted cheddar from a Crock-Pot since the 1950s.
The lunch counter seats provide a front-row view of the cooking action. And it is quite a show. The burgers are cooked up to nine at a time in what looks like a fish basket. Jeff Lassen clamps the patties and a slice of onion between the charred metal bars of the grill basket and then rotates it 90 degrees to fit into one of the narrow gas broilers.
Lassen, who's been doing it for 28 of his 46 years, is one of two people allowed to cook the burgers. He doesn't need a timer to tell him they are ready. "It's more practice makes perfect," Lassen said. "You get the feel for it; you just know when it's done."
When it's time, he uses a red-handled putty knife to scrape the burgers from the metal grill basket onto the waiting, cheese-lathered toast. The burgers are placed on paper plates, where tomatoes are added and the whole package is sliced diagonally in half . If you order two, they come stacked . If you order three, good luck.
Whatever you do, don't ask for ketchup. As a homemade sign attests, the condiment is product non grata. While the "Don't Even Ask!!!" dictum may seem a bit touchy, there is a reason. "My great-grandfather made the first hamburgers and he served them without ketchup," said Lassen. "He felt that ketchup is more a cover up than an enhancement. Because we make our own meat and are proud of it, we want you to taste it."
Medium rare is the default for the burgers. Lassen will cook them longer, but it's not recommended.
While enjoying a burger or two, you may pause to contemplate Louis' place in history. There are other claims to having invented the hamburger, of course, from Ohio, Oklahoma, and Wisconsin. But Lassen has no doubts. "Of all the places that make claims, we're the only one that's in the Library of Congress," Lassen said. "[The others'] proof is mostly hearsay. We have signed affidavits from the customers in 1900."
Louis' is also the only claimant still selling burgers. And they sell a lot. Thursday through Saturday, with its 2 a.m. closing time, the eatery serves up to 300 pounds of meat, largely to the bar crowd and Yale University students.
But Louis' is better known as New Haven's longtime lunch institution. During the day, customers range from janitors to bank presidents. Louis' is so popular that when redevelopment plans threatened it with eviction in 1975, community members chipped in and provided the means to move the legendary luncheonette across town by truck. The restaurant is now in its third location, two blocks from the university and the New Haven Green.
Because the building dates to 1906, space is at a premium. In addition to the counter stools, there are a few cramped booths with names carved into the wood. With so little room to sit, many burgers are taken to go. Just like the first one.
Jonathan Bloom, a freelance writer in Chapel Hill, N.C., can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.