06 April 2006

Lost City: New Haven Edition

Yes, I know this blogger’s job is to rail against the desecration and demolition of New York City’s cultural landmarks (and, on the odd occasion, raise a huzzah for the preservation of same), but yesterday I took a day trip to New Haven, a city that seems to cherish its ineffable culinary institutions in a way that should make Manhattan blush. So, here’s what I saw and know.

Of course, New Haven is home to “Apizza”—not “a pizza,” but the weirdo term they use up there for their superlative, brick-oven pies. Frank Pepe’s (founded 1925), Sally’s Apizza (founded 1938) and Modern Apizza (founded 1934) are the standard bearers. The former two are on Wooster Street in New Haven’s absolutely adorable little Little Italy. All are modest joints with few niceties (Sally’s seems stuck in 1974; the décor is so horrible you can’t look away) with lines of people snaking out the door at all times. Each is worth the wait, even if I could name a pizzeria or two in NYC that surpass them in taste.

But, I didn’t go there yesterday. I went to Louis’ Lunch, squat little brick oasis on Crown Street which purports to have invented the hamburger sandwich in 1895. (There are about five or so rival claims for this epoch-shaking invention.) Their idea of a hamburger, which apparently hasn’t changed in one hundred years, is a flame-grilled mound of meat served on lightly toasted white bread with cooked onions, chopped tomato and cheese. No condiments allowed.

This is a stubborn little place, the “Soup Nazi” of the burger world. Ask for ketchup and they might throw you out. A sign on the wall says “This is not Burger King. You do not get it your way, you get it my way or you don’t get the damned thing.” Another says “Of course, I don’t look busy. I did it right the first time.” Then there’s a picture of a ketchup bottle with a red line through it. Also a coke bottle similarly banned. (Shades of the Greek Coffee Shop skit on early Saturday Night Live: “No Coke—Pepsi.”) There are chips but no other side dishes to speak of, and sodas mainly hail from an obscure local maker in East Haven.

If you’re a first-timer, don’t expect much sympathy from the staff of two. Boston Red Sox fan “Joe”—who makes the burger in these ancient metal, Venus-fly-trap, vertical grills that, wherever they were made, that place sure don’t make ‘em anymore, if it’s around at all—doesn’t say anything. And the counter girl, a pretty Asian girl, is as tough a cookie as you’ll ever want to meet, and my choice for the next Bond vixen. No admission of weakness or human frailty from her. Just “chips are on top, drinks on the blackboard.”

The joint itself is a beaut. Old wood carved through with graffiti. The variety of seating in the tiny place is a wonder in itself. Wooden stools perched on metal piping around one side of the counter; leather-cushioned ottomans around the other side; a couple snug, old wooden booths with curved, wooden sides; a row of “single” booths lining one wall, with a wooden tray of sorts perched in front of each diner—a lot like those old school desks; and one large cast-iron table with a series of seats around it.

There are also a lot of guns on the wall. Not sure what that’s about.

Oh, and the burgers are fantastic. Unlike any you’ve ever had, incredibly juicy and fresh. I believe the heating devices, made in 1895, are the secret. And the ingredients are the right ones; ketchup would spoil the mix. $4.50 is the price of a burger, in case you don’t want to look dumb; it’s not posted anywhere.

Tomorrow, I’ll post Part Two of my New Haven tour.

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