Last updated on February 9th, 2015
For most traveling gourmands, Connecticut is famous for two things: clam pizza and lobster rolls with butter, not mayo. But Kelly Vass, the brains behind Kelly Bakes and one-half of the Alphabet Soup podcast team, has another foodstuff to add to the Connecticut Hall of Fame: burgers.
Growing up in the middle of Connecticut, I’ve marked important life milestones not with photographs or with pieces of paper, but with burgers. The deciding factor in my college search was a retro-style diner on the way to UConn that served cheeseburgers like I’d never seen before. Time spent with my dad meant lunchtime steamed cheeseburgers at our hometown spot. As I grew older, birthdays and celebrations called for something a little classier, like burgers topped with avocado, egg, and kalamata mayo and paired with a craft beer.
It should come as no surprise, then, that when asked what I love most about my home state, I beam with pride and say, “the burgers!” We’re not only home to the birthplace of the hamburger, but we’ve got a number of places finding inventive ways to make a good burger better. Here’s a list of my favorites:
No tour of the burger state would be complete without a trip to the original home of the hamburger: Louis’ Lunch (263 Crown St., New Haven; 203-562-5507). Its quaint, detached building in downtown New Haven with its antique signage, cross-hatched windows, and red wooden shutters stands in symbolic defiance of the row of trendy bars, nightclubs, and restaurants across the street. Louis’ created the hamburger in 1900, and not much has changed since. As legend has it, a customer came in looking for a portable lunch in a hurry and owner Louis Lasson served him ground steak trimmings between two slices of bread. The customer was pleased with his sandwich, Louis was pleased with his creation, and the rest is history!
With a Spartan offering of toppings—tomato, onion and cheese (no ketchup!)—the meat is the main focus, and for good reason: it’s the star of this simple sandwich. A custom mix of five meat blends is formed into patties, which are arranged in a metal cage, locked and then vertically cooked in the original flame broilers, which date back to 1898. The cooking process takes longer than the average fast food joint, but is well worth the wait. Even with the works, the toppings do not overpower the meat at all. In fact, against the flavor and texture of the meat, the cheese is barely noticeable and almost seems superfluous. If ever there was a place to say those blasphemous words—no cheese—at a burger place, it’s at Louis.’
Like the exterior of the building, you won’t find any new-age décor or retro jukeboxes inside; Louis’ patrons share pew-like booths in a communal-style eating arrangement. Table space is tight, so you may find yourself rubbing elbows or bumping burgers with a stranger. Think of it as an excuse to bond with fellow burger enthusiasts. Be prepared to wait, as lines can get pretty long!
Plan B Burger Bar
If you love gourmet burgers made from the highest quality ingredients, look no further than Plan B Burger Bar. With six locations—West Hartford, Glastonbury, Stamford, Simsbury, Milford and Springfield, Massachusetts—you don’t have to go far to find an inspired burger. Each of their burgers meets the highest standards, meaning each patty is made from 100 percent verified humane beef with no antibiotics, hormones, fillers, preservatives, or added colors. As if that weren’t enough, the meat is never frozen; it’s freshly ground in-house each day.
It’s an effort you can taste: even with several toppings, the meat is still the star of the show. And speaking of toppings… my personal favorite? The blue cheese burger with ‘some pink,’ as they say. This delectable sandwich comes with caramelized onions, blue cheese crumbles, and a bourbon bbq sauce. I add on a bit of bacon, a runny sunny side egg, and a side of salty, cheesy disco fries. Paired with bourbon from their extensive collection or an American craft brew, it’s perfection. Bonus: they have an entire gluten-free menu!
Ted’s World Famous Steamed Cheeseburgers
Somewhere between the meat and cheese lovers, we find Ted’s Steamed Cheeseburgers (1046 Broad St., Meriden; 203-237-6660). Admittedly, it’s hard for me not to love this place, as the original restaurant in Meriden, CT is my single source for hometown pride.
What makes Ted’s so special? Both the meat and cheese are packed into individual trays and then cooked in a steam bath until the beef is cooked through and the cheese is perfectly melted. This makes for a slightly rectangular piece of meat, sure, but once the melted cheddar makes its languid descent from its tray onto the burger, the cheese envelops everything it touches in an oozy dairy hug. This burger is best eaten right away, when the cheese is at its prime consistency, so forget the leftovers and chomp it down it in one sitting.
It wouldn’t be a cheeseburger without the cheese, right? So if you’re wondering where the most interesting take on cheese is, head up Route 44 in Manchester and check out Shady Glen (840 E. Middle Turnpike, Manchester; 860-649-4245). They’re doing cheese in a BIG way. Each hamburger patty is cooked on a grill top and then overlapped with four slices of cheese. The cheese bubbles, crisps and curls as it hits the hot grill it, making for a cheese collar around each burger. Once placed on a bun, the burger looks fancy enough to feed to a queen!
It should be noted that there are numerous ways to go about eating this fancy burger, few of which involve just eating it straight on. Most people fall into one of two categories: the pull-and-eaters or the burger toppers. The former pulls away the cheese to savor on its own and the latter pulls it off to top their burger. The extreme cheese lovers can go ahead and order a plate of these cheese crisps by themselves.
Shady Glen also started as a dairy farm, so be sure to wash down your cheeseburger masterpiece with a tall milkshake or buy a tub of ice cream on the way out. It’s not to be missed!