"It's right up there with apple pie and baseball," says Jeff Lassen.
He's talking about the hamburger. And if there's anything Jeff Lassen knows, it's hamburgers.
Lassen is a fourth-generation restaurateur. He has owned Louis' Lunch in New Haven, Connecticut since 2003, run it since the mid-1990s and worked behind the counter since 1979. "I graduated on a Friday, and on Monday morning I was in there cooking breakfast," he says.
At Louis' they still grind fresh meat every day, they still cook burgers in the same cast-iron, upright vertical gas stoves they used on opening day. A tiny brick building with bright red shutters, this small restaurant has a big history, and a dining room that can be quickly overrun with a horde of Jughead Joneses with the simple repeat of a news or travel show. Louis' Lunch, you see, is the "home of the hamburger." Opening day was in 1895.
"My great-grandfather, Louis Lassen, served steak dinners from 1895 to 1900," Jeff muses. "He brought the trimmings home every night afterwards."
He continues the tale with the easy countenance and bored fact recitation of someone who has been asked the same question 10,000 times. One day, a customer came in who was in a rush. In order to give his customer some fast food, Louis grabbed some of those ground meat trimmings he would bring home, formed a patty, tucked it in some toast and unwittingly brought the hamburger screaming into this world.
"America is an on-the-go type of country and really want things yesterday, so to speak," says Lassen. A burger embodies that, and he imagines it always will. "If it's good, if it's quality and if it's the right price, people will come."
"In our estimation, less is more," Lassen says. "By that I mean that we just put onion and tomato on our burgers, and sometimes cheese. If you use quality meat you shouldn't have to add any condiments. It should be about the meat and not about what you put on top of it."
What they put on top of it here in Halifax tends to be mustard, relish and onion. Whether opened in 1958, 1964 or 1975---there are no burger joints here with the storied history of Louis'---the basics seem to be the same. But with the LOLcat as my spirit animal, I set out on a journey to spot the differences from diner to dive throughout Halifax and Dartmouth.
I start at Smokey's in Burnside. A sort of cafeteria-style diner, Smokey's is well hidden in the concrete of Burnside. Their salty patty is quickly grilled and handed over with the standard works, plus ketchup. A soft sesame seed bun finishes it off. It's a pretty good burger. ($3.50, $5.49 for platter, 81 Wright Avenue)
Just down the way, on Windmill Road, the Ship Victory has a beefier take, their hearty six-ounce patty topped with lettuce, tomato and tart pickles. Some packaged condiments are offered up to finish off your burger to taste. It's a juicy burger, and filling at that. ($4.99, $6.99 for platter, 400 Windmill Road)
Also in Dartmouth, a fish and chips favourite, is John's Lunch. Searing sizzles fill the air as the cooks flatten the burger on the grill just a few feet away. Theirs is a tasty burger, if overwhelmed a bit by the condiments. Some of the best coleslaw and milkshakes in the city make up any lost ground. ($3.25, $6.75 for platter, 352 Pleasant Street)
With cramped booths and every inch filled with character and customers pretty much any time you stumble in, Johnny's Snack Bar in Halifax is nothing if not popular, and definitely worth a visit for their burger. The small patty is a bit overwhelmed by the bun, but has a great homemade taste. ($3.75 or $$6.75 for platter, 6204 Almon Street)
Lots of sweet, fried onions are a highlight on The Ardmore's burger, which is a comparative softball of beef, also topped with lettuce and tomato and awkwardly sliced pickle halves. The burger itself is dry, passable since it's a big portion and filling on its own. ($3.99, $6.98 for platter, 6499 Quinpool Road)
Topped with onion, lettuce and tomato, the burger at Jenny's Place is the only other with a fat patty that I find on this journey. The meat itself is under-seasoned, but juicy. They are also one of the only two diners I hit that wonderfully put the cheese on the burger while it's still on the grill. ($4.75, 6211 Lady Hammond Road)
The burger at Cousins' Restaurant was my hands-down favourite. The cheese was on the patty before it left the grill, delectably melted and the bun was buttered and given a nice toasting before plating. Fat strips of onion and a nice measure of mustard and relish finish it off. They know what they're doing. ($3.75, $6.95 for platter. 5711 Lady Hammond Road)
"If you're going to do something, do it right," says Lassen. If you want to be a burger king, you only need to live by seven words: "If it's not broke, don't fix it." Long live the kings, I say.