Friday, October 24, 2008

New Haven: Louis' Lunch

It's a good thing I visited Louis' Lunch website before visiting. Otherwise, I might have ended up looking like a touristy fool.

First things first, there is a strict No Ketchup rule at Louis'. Violate that and I understand that they will mock you relentlessly. Next, know your order and how to order it. Don't stand there looking around trying to figure things out, just order. They're known for their burgers, so that's what you're gonna get. No bacon. No Jalapenos. No mustard. No portabello mushrooms.

Want your burger on a sesame seed bun? Shake yer ass down to McDonald's. Thinking about avocado on your burger? Beat it. Want fries? Get out. Louis' Lunch is a small place and the staffs' patience is even smaller - and now that I've been there, I understand why.

Working in tight confines will drive anyone to insanity or eccentricity. And Louis' Lunch is small. Very small. There's only two people working behind a very small counter and they do it all. Cook burgers, serve drinks, serve salad, hand out chips, etc. Did I mention it's busy? I was there around 3pm and the place was steady. Not jam-packed, but it wasn't mealtime either. Just steady. It took me at least fifteen minutes to get my burger.

So, combine a tiny workspace in a small building with lots of customers coming in a steady stream throughout the day and then mix in the usual East Coast Attitude and you can see why these guys want you to know how to order and manage yourself like a pro. Personally speaking, I hate being ridiculed while I order hence the reason I studied their website prior to my arrival.

Ordering is simple. Just tell them you want: "Cheese Works, Salad, Birch." That's it. Done. Easy. No one degrades you. Me likey.

What that jargon means is: "I'd like a cheeseburger please, cooked medium with a side order of potato salad and a bottle of birch beer." Whew, that's starting to sound like a mighty high-falutin' way of orderin' now, doesn't it?

Inside is a large community table, some two people alcoves and six seats along the main counter. Throughout the years, people have carved their initials into the wood, marking their turf and laying the groundwork to show their children twenty years later. I took a seat at the counter so I could have a good view of the cook in action.

Obviously I'm an outsider. A Newbie. A Louis' Virgin. I ask the cook if he would mind if I took some pictures. He nods "yes" but since I asked if he minded, I don't know if that nod means "yes, I mind and if you take a photo I'm gonna shove you in the charbroiler" or if he just meant that it was cool to take some photos. He's a pretty big guy of very few words (in fact, he's said nothing since I arrived) and I would really regret it if he meant the former.

Perhaps I'm just too dumb to follow my senses but I snap a couple of photos anyway. He doesn't seem to mind, so I continue.

I always enjoy seeing people in their workspace. Especially small workspaces because the real estate is so limited that they're forced to be efficient and Louis' Lunch is the classic example of efficiency. Everything has their place. Balls of beef that are rolled and pressed by hand before being slid into the fire of the charbroiler. Piles of sliced tomatoes. A drawer of peeled white onions. A number ten can of Cheese Whiz. Salt and pepper. Everything has a place and Jason (that's the cooks' name) doesn't have to move from his position. Everything is within reach, or a slight turn of the torso.

To his left and to the back is the rotary, gas powered bread toaster that's churning out a constant flow of toasted white bread. To the right of the toaster are four vertical gas charbroilers. Evidently, these are the same ones used when the place opened nearly 100 years ago. Place the patties in a metal basket that fits in the broilers and in just a few minutes your burger is ready.

In front of Jason is his main workstation. Presliced tomatoes stand at the ready and backup onions are in the drawer under the front counter to his right. I'm also seated to his right. As he works, he reviews the upcoming orders and lays out either deli paper or paper plates on the counter in front of me. When the meat is ready, he pulls the basket out, slathers one slice of bread with Cheese Whiz, adds the patty and tops it with a fresh cut wedge of onion and a slice of tomato and cuts the burger in half before either wrapping it in paper or serving it with napkins on a plate.

It's fast. It's efficient. And it's amazing to watch a professional in action. There's no wasted movements. No incessant chatter. No dancing. No tomfoolery. Jason is a pro and he's knocking the burgers out, one by one.

To my left, the girl at the counter is fielding orders, both in-person and on the phone. She's no nonsense. Just give me your order, pay and get outta the way. This is not genteel, white table cloth ordering but it's honest. She's without pretense. She just wants to process your order and move on to the next one. Be ready.

She scoops a serving of potato salad out of a large bucket and grabs a bottle of clear birch beer. Both are good. Nothing wild or crazy, just good. The potato salad has bits of hard boiled egg, which I like.

There's a lot of orders and it's taking awhile to get to my burger. I only paid for 33 minutes on the parking meter and I could be in trouble if I don't get it together. Rather than waiting for my burger to arrive, I decide to order another Cheese Works to go thinking that it will arrive just in time before I need to depart.

Finally, my turn it up and I watch Jason as he cooks and then assembles my Cheese Works. He slides it over to me covered by some napkins. Time to see what all the fuss is about and take a bite.

I prefer my toast nice and crunchy. Not charred and burned, mind you, but crunchy. I like textures and this toast is just right. Just the right amount of crunch. But how about the meat? Beefy. Very beefy. The beef flavor of the meat is pronounced. It's in your face, right where it ought to be. But it's missing something. The beef flavor is there and is strong but it's not rounded. It's not as good as it could be. It needs salt.

For a moment, I think about asking for salt but then decide against it. I don't want to incur the wrath of the staff - especially when I'm within blade radius. I've got another burger coming and I'll try that one later with salt.

The burger is good. It's just right. It's flavorful and balanced. Not too much bread, not too much of anything. Just a nice balance between the ingredients - which is something you don't find too often in burgers these days. Most places are just towering monstrosities that you can't get your mouth around much less enjoy properly. Not here. These burgers are good. Though I do wish they went a bit heavier on the cheese.

The burger was good and I'm happy. Is it what I was expecting? Yes, it's a good burger. A great burger even. But is it "The Best" burger I've ever tried? Perhaps not. It's damn good. Definitely one of the best but I don't know if I'm ready to say it was "The Best." Still needed a little more salt.

During my time at the counter, I got to observe obvious tourists come in, ask questions and try the staffs' patience, as well as a caller who wanted explicit directions but couldn't quite follow them. It's fun to watch the staff in action as they run from quiet observation to near hostility with comatose tourists. Go and check them out but remember to study up on how to order before you go.

Louis' Lunch
263 Crown Street
New Haven, CT 06511

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