Great American Bites: A taste of hamburger history in Connecticut

The scene:  Connecticut makes a pretty legit claim as the inventor of the iconic hamburger, but while the burger has evolved into a pretty standard design elsewhere (a broiled/grilled/sautéed patty on a bun), here in its birthplace it remains, well, odd.

  • This is the hamburger at Louis' Lunch, always cooked to a perfect medium-rare.

    By Larry Olmsted for USA TODAY

    This is the hamburger at Louis' Lunch, always cooked to a perfect medium-rare.

By Larry Olmsted for USA TODAY

This is the hamburger at Louis' Lunch, always cooked to a perfect medium-rare.

Louis' Lunch in New Haven is the establishment that says it invented the burger, and while there are many other claimants and conflicting stories, they have the Library of Congress and many historians on their side. In any case, Louis' is an institution that remains pretty much as it was more than 100 years ago, a standalone shack-like building with a World's Fair kiosk look in downtown New Haven, which grew up around the stand. They still cook on the original custom-made upright cast-iron gas grills, sort of vertical waffle irons for burgers. You order at the counter, there are only a couple of tables, and a half-dozen old-fashioned school seats with built-in "arm desks," set into recesses carved into a wooden wall. The décor consists mainly of handwritten signs and admonitions ("Leave bottles here," "Closed all August," etc.) and the back room has been converted into a souvenir stand for t-shirts and logo items. For some reason, pie flavors are intentionally and elaborately misspelled: Appul, Bluuberry, Cheri, etc.

20 miles away in Meriden, Ted's Restaurant is not much more ornate, a narrow diner-style eatery with three booths along one wall and ten stools at the counter along the other, plus two outdoor fair-weather picnic tables. As the sign proclaims, Ted's serves "World Famous Steamed Cheeseburgers Since 1959." The steamed burger is an anomaly of this little section of Connecticut, and there are a few competitors, but Ted's is by far the best known and most popular. Behind the counter is a custom metal cabinet with little drawers, not unlike a workshop parts cabinet, and either a slab of ground beef or cheddar cheese is inserted in each drawer, which are then shut. The cabinet is full of steam which cooks everything. If you get a cheeseburger, the oozy cheese is scooped onto the finished burger. It's a unique style of cooking burgers in a world that has tried every other approach, purporting to be juicer while draining off the fat, and Ted's has a loyal following.

Both restaurants have been widely featured on TV food shows and draw crowds from around the country for their unique appeals.

Reason to visit:  Burgers, history

The food:  You go to these places for burgers, period, and at Louis' Lunch, the entire menu consists of burger, cheeseburger, raw onion and tomato, with sides limited to bags of chips or a Styrofoam coffee cup of cold potato salad. They have pie for dessert. That's it. They famously refuse to serve ketchup and the biggest selection is beverages, which includes lots of soft drinks, most notably old-fashioned sodas from the local Foxon factory, also served at New Haven's famous Pepe's pizzeria. Louis' is frequently jammed with a line out the door, so on my last visit (my first was 27 years ago!) I went 10 minutes before their noon opening in summer, when Yale is not in session and students are gone, thinking I would slide right in. Wrong. The line was 10 deep, including a group of motorcycle enthusiasts who had ridden from Michigan and were bent on trying the burgers. Ten minutes later when the door opened, the line had grown to 30 - with one near fistfight argument - and when I left at 12:30, it was down the block.

The staff is nice and patient, and while locals know the ordering lingo ("Cheese-onion" or "cheese-works") and never ask for ketchup, they happily tolerate the many naive first-timers who ignore the prominent signs. The place is both historic and charming and you can see the burgers cooking in the unique, antique, upright gas grills. At Louis' the experience is the best part of the meal. The burgers themselves - always served medium-rare unless you specify well-done - are merely okay, and proudly unchanged since 1900. This predates the bun, so what makes them unique is that they are served on toasted white bread, and if you order a cheeseburger, you don't actually get melted cheese; instead the bread is covered with something resembling Wispride cheese spread. I'm a cheeseburger guy, but this cheese adds little and can hardly be noticed.

I think there is even an argument to be made that the bun is what makes a burger a burger, just as a tortilla makes a wrap or a sub roll makes a sub, and these are simply sandwiches - but that's a philosophy discussion for another time. On a positive note, the medium-rare is truly that and perfectly cooked, unusual in the burger world, with a reddish almost cool center, and the potato salad, while bland, is clearly homemade, creamy and chunky. But I've had far better burgers - without waiting on line - and the reason to visit is to be part of history. Louis' used to be open only for lunch, hence its name, but this part of New Haven suddenly became a nightlife epicenter, and it is now open until 2 a.m.

By Larry Olmsted for USA TODAY

Ted's is a small diner-like restaurant on a residential street in Meriden.

Ted's has a slightly bigger menu, offering the option of home-fries, BLTs and hot dogs. The burgers are quite good, and the steaming results in a patty that appears medium well, solidly gray through and through, but with no charring or crusty outside and very juicy - the juiciest well-done burger I have ever had. On the other hand, since most people prefer rare to medium burgers, which when done right are just as juicy, the steaming adds little to the equation. The highlight is the contrast between the look and taste of the patty, but if you tried it blind, you would have no idea it had been steamed. But I really liked the unique stretchy consistency of the steamed cheese, pulling away with your bite like pizza cheese sometimes does.

The burger at Ted's was appreciably better than Louis', though hardly worth a special trip. The nice thing is that the place is very friendly and very cheap. The $4.75 burger includes a whopping choice of sides: lettuce, tomatoes, onions (raw or sautéed), mushrooms, pickles, relish, jalapenos, and a full range of condiments, from hot sauce and bbq sauce to yes, ketchup. For a small fee you can add bacon, chili, or a second patty. Home fries are bland but a bargain at $1.75, meaning a complete meal runs $6.50. As for hot dogs, they are halved and then sliced lengthwise into four pieces to fit the drawer, steamed the same way, and served on the same Kaiser rolls as the burgers. I tried one, forgetting that while steaming is very unusual for burgers, it is very normal for hot dogs. I'd skip it.

Ted's also gets crowded, but serves a lot of phoned-in to-go orders and is more oriented towards locals and regulars, and less of a circus attraction. If I lived in Meriden I'd happily eat their burgers regularly, but except for hamburger-obsessed history buffs, there is not a lot of need to make a trek there. Ted's has a second location in nearby Cromwell, and third coming soon in North Haven - on Louis' turf.

What regulars say:  "I brought him to Louis' for a historic meal. He's going to have a heart attack on the train," said Anthony, a local entertaining day-visitors from New York City.

Pilgrimage-worthy?:  No - unless you are a food-history buff. But Louis' is worth checking out for the atmosphere if you are in New Haven and Ted's makes a great meal stop for travelers on the Merritt Parkway in New England, just a 5-minute detour from the exit.

Rating:  OK (Scale: Blah, OK, Mmmm, Yum!, OMG!)

Price:  $ ($ cheap, $$ moderate, $$$ expensive)

Details:  Louis' Lunch, 261-3 Crown Street, New Haven; 203-562-5507;; Ted's Restaurant original location, 1046 Broad Street, Meriden; 203-237-6660;

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