There’s already a line forming outside of Louis’ Lunch. It’s noon on a Thursday,
and the air is filled with chatter about the day, complaints of too-brief visits to New Haven, and (of course) whispers about the almost mythological history of the burger restaurant.
Louis’ Lunch has been around since 1895, when it was just a lunch wagon on the corner of Crown and George. Supposedly the owner, Ludwig Lassen (who anglicized his name to Louis), invented the hamburger: a puck of chopped steak between two pieces of toast. The recipe didn’t change until the ‘50s, when they gave customers the option of adding a swipe of cheese spread. In 1975, they moved four blocks down to 263 Crown Street, and have been slinging burgers, “potatoe salad”, chips, Foxon Park soda, and homemade pies there ever since.
At 12:05, the doors open, revealing old wood tables haphazardly carved with hundreds of patrons’ names. A piece of the original counter from their first brick and mortar location inside a tannery is still in the restaurant. Louis’ Lunch favors tradition, both in terms of interior design and menu. Aside from the ’50s cheese spread, you can add only onions and tomatoes to your burger. Asking for ketchup might incite immediate removal from the restaurant. The cook, clad in all white, shoves nine burgers into vertical broilers belching flames, dating back to 1898. Behind the counter sits a pot of what looks like American cheese whipped together with hot water, an easily spreadable golden goo. It’s spartan, efficient, reflective of a restaurant that offers few options and upholds its history as a speedy lunch counter for hungry workers. The chef behind the counter loads patties into the broiler and slices of grocery store white bread into the toaster.
I sit down to wait for my meal and take a look at the other guests. A woman with her suitcase dashes in, trying to get a burger before her flight. She says that she had to try Louis’ Lunch before she left. Some men in business casual walk in, hoping to grab a quick bite during their lunch break. One father enters with his teenage son and chats with the worker at the register. He says that his son has been coming to Louis’ since he was below waist height. Now, more than a decade later, a burger, soda, and chips are still a weekly tradition for them.
My food arrives on the century-old counter. The burger is unceremoniously plopped onto a
paper plate; the potato salad sits in a styrofoam cup with a fork planted in the middle. The food also looks like it’s from the early 20th century. Stripped of unnecessary trimmings, the burger has no place to hide. The coarsely-ground beef, cooked to a perfect medium rare, is a revelation. Tinged with smoke from the flame broiler but without the crusty exterior that defines the all-too-common smash-burger, it’s tender and slightly mineral. Beyond that, the meal is fine, if a bit plain. The cheese spread is a bit strange but not unwelcome. As I sit at the table, I jot down some notes and finish my burger.
Just around the corner from Louis’ is a restaurant without any claim to tradition: Villa Lulu. Villa Lulu was one of the restaurants featured in the New York Times’ “New Haven” entry of the “52 Places to Go in 2023.” (The Elm City was listed at number fifty, ahead of The Black Hills, SD and Sarajevo—the capital of Bosnia–Herzegovina). This puzzled me, as the restaurant isn’t a particularly strong representative of the historic Italian community in New Haven. It isn’t even in Wooster Square!
Villa Lulu is a modern Italian restaurant that serves slightly upscale (and expensive) classics such as arancini, pappardelle Bolognese, linguini and clams, braised short-rib and polenta, and eggplant parmesan. After trying the bucatini amatriciana and chicken piccata, I really couldn’t understand why the Times had promoted the place. If you want to try real bucatini amatriciana, rich with aromatic guanciale and funky pecorino romano, a humble dish that nonetheless demands balletic finesse, go elsewhere.
And yet, Villa Lulu was busy. Families, couples going on dates, and the odd pair of businessmen filled the restaurant. Symphonic chatter floats from the upstairs dining room; different snippets of conversations fly past my ears like melodies.
I ended up sitting down at 12 restaurants and two food carts to explore more of New Haven. I wanted to find a place that centered food above all else. My next stop was the food carts on the corner of Sachem and Prospect. I’ve always admired the skills it takes to run such a kitchen. Every cart is managed with practiced precision. Hotel pans are perfectly arranged for easy reach. Every utensil has a home on the serving station so that it’s accessible with as little movement as possible. In the tight confines of a food cart and under the pressure of hungry people lined up outside, small inconveniences quickly turn into large delays in service. Serving good food here demands a kind of discipline comparable with that of fine dining. The food, of course, is wildly different.
I walked up to the cart selling “Authentic Thai Food” and ordered mango curry, pad Kaprow, with pad thai noodles. Let’s be clear: none of what I ate could be considered authentic Thai, and I didn’t care. The curry’s aromatic lemongrass and chili notes floated on a coconut backing track, with plush, velvety interludes of overcooked-on-the-steam-table-mango that became my lunchtime rhapsody. The pad ka prow, lacking the copious amounts of holy basil that normally defines it, marches to its own beat—tender and light, warmed by the soft heat of dried chilis, bamboo shoots punctuating every bite with earthy crunch. This is New Haven’s Thai food, Sachem street’s Thai food, and it should be your next lunch.
I took a moment to look at the people lining up at the carts. Professors, construction workers, students, administrators, and a chef that I recognized had all lined up for lunch. People peered at the menus, chatted with friends, and sat down to eat at the picnic tables next to Pauli Murray College. Many were regulars who ate from these food carts on a weekly basis. Hungry customers queued up at different carts; tangled threads formed as the line for Thai food stretched through the line for arepas. For a few hours every weekday, the lunch rush creates a tapestry of New Haven’s people, woven by experts in tiny stalls on the street corner.
Sitting in a dozen dining rooms (or picnic benches next to carts) gave me an appreciation for the atmosphere restaurants create, whether intentional or not. Whether restaurants choose to spend more of their energy on food or atmosphere tells you almost nothing about how enjoyable a restaurant is. Close to downtown, you’ll find that Tibetan Kitchen and Olives and Oil embody this reality, one choosing to let food talk, the other fostering an almost familial atmosphere.
Tibetan Kitchen has been serving Tibetan staples like momos, keema thukpa, and shaptak since they moved from Middletown to New Haven last year. Prayer wheels adorn the foyer and a shrine to the Dalai Lama sits behind the counter. Even so, the dining room feels like an afterthought, hardly befitting the restaurant’s status as an innovator highlighting a lesser-known cuisine. I enjoy thenthuk, springy hand-pulled noodles in clarified beef stock; sha-kodhak, a dish of sautéed beef with peppers in a spicy gravy; and tingmo, a rolled and steamed bun endemic to Tibet and Western China. Without the pomp and fanfare and excessive garnish of a chef trying to sell the “exotic,” every dish is quietly confident, hiding nothing.The hand-pulled noodles have a bouncy, perfect chew—a sign that someone has laboriously kneaded and rested the dough until it can stretch to arm’s length without breaking. The sha-kodhak, totally new to me, is spicy—full of the toasted spiciness I associate with stir-fried dishes, despite the tomato-forward gravy. The food is undeniably the collision of Tibetan ethos and Western ingredients, missing the yak and roasted barley flour often associated with Tibetan food. It is simple but far from plain—nourishing and made with a lot of attention to detail, it is the manifestation of love for food. The dining room embodies part of that idea; it’s not an ornate stage meant to dazzle, just a soapbox that gives the food a chance to speak.
A ten-minute walk away, on the other hand, the dining room of Olives and Oil was more effervescent than their mimosas. Guests mingled across tables and at the bar, orders of drinks flying across the oak.
Even on a Sunday night, the place is packed; thirsty patrons line the vintage poster-covered walls. I think the staff of Tibetan Kitchen would have a panic attack in here. Despite the artificially aged appearance of the booths and styling of an old brasserie, Olives and Oil has none of the subdued elegance that Tibetan Kitchen exudes in its food. I ordered one of the house cocktails (a riff on a white negroni) and a margherita pizza. Both are fine. There are better places for white negronis and neapolitan pizza in New Haven—The Owl Shop and Zeneli’s. If Tibetan Kitchen’s dishes are an homage to a distant home, Olives and Oil’s are social lubrication. Almost everyone there worked in small towns around New Haven and had gathered at Olives and Oil for a fun Sunday before the workweek. For most, Olives and Oil is a place to blow off some steam and be with friends, a hangout spot to spend four hours at because you’d rather be there than go home and face the Sunday Scaries. Yes, it’s a restaurant that needs to sell food and drinks to stay afloat, but nobody would claim that the energy is focused on the food. Come here, gather with friends, ask the pizza cook how his day is, and order another drink when the conversation hits a lull.
New Haven’s restaurant scene has plenty of newcomers pushing the envelope, one of which is Tacos los Gordos, a taco restaurant by Chef Edgar Marcial. After opening for barely a month, a fire last September shut down the restaurant until late October. Much of the recovery was made possible by a GoFundMe campaign and the support of other local restaurants, a testament to the impact this place has had in its short time open.
Tacos los Gordos doesn’t try to taste like any other place in New Haven. Hoping to bring a bit of SoCal and Mexico to the Elm City, the menu sticks to classics from Oaxaca, Mexico City, Michoacán, and Tijuana, such as mulitas (similar to a quesadilla with corn tortillas), tortas, and, of course, various tacos. The whole kitchen is open, and the sights and smells of a Mexican kitchen hit you instantly when you enter the restaurant. You can see the vertical spit where pork is roasted for taco de adobada and the tortilla press where tortillas are made to order. A hotel pan full of masa sits at the ready—masa that perfumes the restaurant as soon as it hits hot cast-iron. While eyeing the molcajete full of radishes and limes at the counter, I order tacos de adobada, tacos de lengua, mulitas de nopales, esquites (Mexican Street corn off-the-cob), and horchata. Mashing guacamole by hand, mixing fresh masa, and making a trompo every day requires an enormous amount of work, but the end product resoundingly beats out what any faster, more efficient method would produce.
The char on the nopales breathes life into the salty, vegetal, cactus paddles in the same way that Hendrix transfigured the guitar. The adobada, marinated in achiote and citrus, crisp from its brief visit to the plancha, is my favorite. All of it is wrapped up in a delicate tortilla, its soft texture giving way to earthy, hominy-fueled bliss. Eating fall-apart-in-your-hands mulitas and slightly too cheesy esquites, I find Tacos los Gordos’ unapologetically different style refreshing. No wonder locals stepped up to save Tacos los Gordos from the ashes. Chefs unload ingredients from the back of a car parked outside, making everything (from fresh ingredients to an open kitchen) harken back to Chef Marcial’s California roots. New Haven can seemingly draw in chefs from anywhere, and we diners are lucky for it. Wiping my hands on many napkins, I finish my horchata and step onto Orange Street.
If you want to meet New Haven, go to its restaurants. Louis’ Lunch’s inflexible approach to tradition attracts the curious visitor looking for a slice of history and regulars who don’t need or want the food to change. The meal, the whole meal, is an institution that restaurants sell, preserve, transform. Some restaurants remind us that meals are often more about the people we’re with and less about the food. Other restaurants, like Tibetan Kitchen and Tacos los Gordos, make the meal about sharing cultural background with others who might not be able to access it otherwise. There, you’ll find other curious eaters or seasoned diners who know that these gems are worth repeat visits. In curating their meal, restaurants carve up the surrounding community, often across socioeconomic and cultural lines. Sometimes the meal is just a daily necessity, but even so, the humble food cart reminds us that while we all need to eat, our search for the delicious can accidentally unite us.