Basketball fans have Springfield, MA. Beatles devotees look to Liverpool. If you’re a burger lover, a pilgrimage to New Haven, CT should probably be on your bucket list.
The history of the hamburger is long and varied and fraught with controversy. Forming chopped up meat into a lump and cooking it over fire has been going on for centuries and it didn’t start in America. But if we want to find the birthplace of what we know as the hamburger sandwich, Louis’ Lunch in New Haven is a reasonable place to start.
As the story goes, a Danish immigrant named Louis Lassen sold butter and eggs as a street vendor upon his arrival in America in 1880. Twenty years later, as the owner of his own restaurant in New Haven, Lassen invented the hamburger sandwich for a customer who need something he could eat on the go. Therefore, the Lassen family claims 1900 as the birth year of the hamburger sandwich. Louis’ Lunch is even on the National Register of Historic Places.
The Lassen burger (Louis’ great-grandson, Jeff Lassen, makes and sells them now) looks a little different than what you get in most restaurants today. In fact, it looks more like something you might make at home, especially if you forgot to pick up buns at the store.
Every morning, Louis’ Lunch’s patties are freshly ground with a special blend of beef. Without exception, the patties are cooked to a medium-rare. They’re still flame-broiled in the original vertical cast iron gas stoves which were made in 1898. The stoves use hinged steel wire gridirons to hold the hamburgers in place while they cook simultaneously on both sides.
Here’s where you see the biggest differences from the modern-day burger. Instead of buns, Louis’ Lunch uses toasted sandwich bread. And Louis’ Lunch has a strict ordering policy: Absolutely no condiments. That’s right, no ketchup, no mustard, no mayo. As far as I can tell, the only thing you’re allowed to have on America’s original hamburger sandwich is onion, tomato, and a smear of spreadable cheese. Who’s to argue with the originator?