Burger-ing Through Connecticut

While D.C. is home field for our never-ending quest, there's no room for discrimination when it comes to burger consumption. If someone is hyping up a burger out there, deserved or not, you damn well better believe we're going to find it and place our verdict. So earlier this month, when Burger Days took a road trip up 95 to Connecticut, we made sure to hit up three of the most highly touted, and historic, burger joints in state. In fact, two of the spots, Louis' and Ted's, were included in Food and Wine's Best Burgers in the U.S. list last month.  

Louis' Lunch

Up first was Louis' Lunch in New Haven, who lay claim to being the "birthplace of the hamburger sandwich." Now that's some historical shit right there. The story goes that in 1900, a guy stopped by in a rush and wanted something to eat on the run. Ol' Louis slapped together ground steak trimmings between two slices of bread, and boom, the hamburger was born. Is it true? Was it really the first burger? No clue. But it works for us. First thing about this spot-- it's small. And by small, I mean freakin' tiny. If 20 people could sit down and eat in the place, I'd be impressed. Fortunately, when we went, there were only six other people there. Score. Second, even the most indecisive person won't have much trouble with the menu. You get two choices: hamburger or cheeseburger, with or without tomatoes or onions. That's it. Don't be looking around for any ketchup or mustard either. There is none. And don't even ask. For sides, you can get chips or potato salad, no fries. (and with no ketchup, what's the point of fries anyway?) Not much has changed since Louis first hooked it up in 1900, the burgers are cooked in the same antique broilers from back then and served between, not a bun, two slices of white toast. Ta da, there's your burger. We ordered up two cheese works and two salads (that's the lingo, learn it). Since there wasn't a crowd, our wait was maybe 5 minutes. Not bad at all. The burger ain't much to look at it-- it's a patty on bread, served on a paper plate. And because of the vertical cooking, they don't use cheese slices, instead they slather on something resembling Cheese Whiz. But what it's lacking in aesthetics it makes up for in pure hamburger taste. When you scrape away all the toppings and sauces that make up most of the burgers out there today, you get to the soul of the sandwich. The beef. That's the star, or should be, of any burger. And that's what Louis' highlights here.

Louis' old broilers can do it up right.

The beef, a proprietary blend of five meat varieties, was cooked perfectly to medium rare. The patty was loosely packed, plenty juicy and grease was at a minimum. The seasoning was minimal too, guessing just salt and pepper, but it was on point. Onions were nicely grilled along with the burger and the tomato, while not the ripest, was perfectly sliced. When we first heard about the bread, we were anticipating thicker, Wonder Bread-type slices. These were on the thinner side but held up well through eating. We could have used just a bit more cheese, but no big complaints, as again, the beef was the star of this show. When you serve such a bare bones burger, there's not much room for error. No bacon or ketchup or anything else is gonna cover up a screw up here. Fortunately, Louis' knows their stuff like they should-- 100+ years is a long time to practice. (A note: they don't accept credit cards, so make sure you bring the cash money (an ATM is on site). We did see two customers come up short on the loot, but after a "Well, whaddya got?" from the guy behind the counter, he hooked 'em up anyway. Gotta love that.) Louis' Lunch | 263 Crown Street, New Haven, CT | 203-562-5507 | www.louislunch.com  

Ted's Restaurant

Ted's Restaurant in Meriden, a bit father north than Louis', is known for their steamed burgers. We never had a steamed burger before, and honestly, never really thought about it. Turns out, they were invented in the 30's and only exist in Connecticut. Again, leave it to CT to school us with the burger knowledge. Like Louis', Ted's is a small joint. Open since 1959, the inside has only a counter and a couple booths, most of the seating is outside on the sidewalk. Orders are placed at the counter where you can get a burger with or without cheese, though, if you don't get the cheese, there's really no point in getting anything. The cheese, a blend of Vermont cheddar and other undisclosed stuff, is steamed just like the burgers, resulting in a cheesy, soupy, gooey mix that is generously poured over your order. It's the real deal.

Cheese goo is goo-d.

Unfortunately, because of the unique cooking process, you get your burger done one way, and one way only. Well done. Don't look for any color in this meat, it's gray through and through. They don't press the burgers into the traditional patty shape either, instead you get a sort of ovalish, gray-looking mass. It's served with your choice of toppings on a Kaiser roll but because of the odd-shaped patty, the bun never really fits and it makes for a challenging meal.

Juicy. And gray.

Looks aside, we found the burger itself to be surprisingly juicy, and since most gets drained off during the steaming process, it was relatively grease-free. Despite the juiciness, however, it was still too done for my liking and I struggled to find the flavor of the beef. As for the bun, the Kaiser didn't do it for me. It was too big, it couldn't contain the amporphous blob of a burger and was just plain blah. What I did love, however, was the cheese. It was f**cking great. It alone dramatically increased my opinion of the burger as a whole. If they gave me a spoon, I would've eaten a bowl of the stuff. And then probably ordered another. It was the highlight of the day. Don't bother getting bacon, however, the two strips served with my burger were limp and soggy-- like the bacon you'd find at any fast food chain. Not worth it. On the side, they have home fries that are seriously good. Like the burgers, they're available with or without cheese. Unlike the burgers, they're just fine without it, but hell, the cheese is so good, you can't pass it up here either. Final verdict? As long as there's a healthy (we use the term loosely) heaping of molten cheese on 'em, Ted's steamed burgers are worth a shot. Ted's Restaurant | 1046 Broad Street, Meriden, CT | 203-237-6660 | www.tedsrestaurant.com  

Shady Glen

Live from Hill Valley. Where's Biff?

Winning the award for the most unique looking burger of the weekend was the Bernice Original from Shady Glen in Manchester. Another historic joint, the diner has been pumping out grub for over 60 years. A dairy farm turned dairy store and restaurant, it's bigger than both Louis' and Ted's put together. It's also straight outta the 50's, with the women wearing green waitress uniforms with white aprons and the guys sporting bow ties and paper hats. It gives the spot a bit of a kitschy vibe, but when you figure they've been doing it this way since 1948, it's understandable. What makes their cheeseburgers so distinct is the cheese preparation. The Bernice Original (the creation of Shady Glen's original co-owner Bernice Rieg) is made by arranging four, non overlapping slices of American cheese on a patty, with the corners of each slice hanging off the side. When the burger is cooked, the cheese hanging off the edges gets fried up by the griddle resulting in melty cheese on the patty and crispy triangles of the stuff surrounding the outside. I was told the result would resemble a crown with the edges of each slice curling up in the air, but I guess my cheese wasn't feelin' it that day, 'cause all my corners were lifeless and turned down. Talk about a shot to the ego. Anyway, apparently there's two ways to eat the burger. You can either rip off the corners and eat the fried cheese on its own, or you can choose to fold them up into your burger and eat it all at once. I split the difference-- tore off two and folded up the rest.

This cheese needs some Cialis.

Ignoring the pathetic limpness of my cheese crown, the Bernice Original was pretty good. The fried cheese edges taste much like you'd expect. If you've ever made nachos in the microwave, you know that cheese that falls off the chips and gets cooked up on the plate-- the stuff you have to scrape up with your fingernail? It tastes like that. Yeah, I don't let any amount cheese go to waste. The crispy, chewiness of it adds a dimension to the burger here that you won't find just about anywhere else.

Drink it up.

The bun is a typical commercial, white, squishy-type deal and fits the burger well. The patties are small, only four ounces, so the cheese take center stage. It teeters on the edge of overwhelming the meat, but just enough of the beef sneaks through that it works. I also added some raw onions to bring a little more flavor to the mix. But even with four slices of cheese, one burger wasn't quite enough to fill me up. I ordered the platter with crinkle-cut fries and onion rings (both were ok, nothing special), and could've definitely eaten more. In retrospect, I would have doubled up on the burger and skipped the sides. While we came for the beef, they're also known for their homemade ice cream. Ordered a vanilla shake and they hooked it up. It was one of the best I've had in a while-- and that includes the stuff from the D.C. joints. Solid win for CT here. Bottom line is that Shady Glen knows how to do a greasy, cheesy burger. The Bernice Original is not going to blow you away, but the fried cheese gives it a distinction that stands out from the typical diner offering-- and it tastes good too. Just remember to order two. Shady Glen | 840 East Middle Turnpike, Manchester, CT | 860-649-4245   Louis' LunchTed's RestaurantShady Glen Between Louis', Ted's and Shady Glen, combined they've got 225 years of burger serving experience. That's a long-ass time in the biz. If you can do your thing, and do it well like these guys are, you're obviously doing it right. Were any of the burgers the best we ever had? No, and it wasn't really even close. But were they good? Yup. And we're glad we had them. While the offerings from these three Connecticut veterans fall short of our "Best Burger" title, all three joints do have their own chapters in burger history and are certainly worthy of inclusion on everybody's burger bucket list.  

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