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Hanger Steak, Baccalà & a $5.25 Hamburger: A Culinary Journey

I’ll admit I am a fledgling foodie. My palate is not the most cultured or traveled and I do not think I’ll be finding employment as a critic any time soon, but I do enjoy making my way through Zagat as much as the next New Yorker. On a recent long weekend in New Haven, Connecticut, I looked forward to my reservations almost as much as I did seeing some friends. When traveling, my gastronomical GPS comes out in full force– there’s hardly a better way to cement a place in your mind than through a good meal. Even a lousy meal offers a story to tell.

Armed with Zagat and a few NYT reviews, I planned ahead, and with the help of my traveling secretary (the OpenTable app) nearly had all the menus memorized before being seated. My first destination was a rather chic, “Contemporary American” eatery. While those two words often frighten me (I have been far too many times to Contemp. Am. restaurants whose dishes were so contemporary, I couldn’t figure out what they were), I quickly realized I had no cause for worry. Amidst the sterile, steel gray, square plate aesthetic popular in dining these days, I was at ease. After demolishing a bowl of root vegetable soup, I leisurely worked my way through a masterfully prepared hanger steak. The atmosphere, company, food, and staff yielded a well choreographed experience. As I settled into my hotel room that night, I was both satiated and smiling. The only thing lighter about me was my wallet.

That next evening, after further lightening the load in my back pocket with some visits to the type of bookstores you can only find in a college town, I got all gussied up once more for a visit to a Spanish restaurant. I don’t have a particular affinity for Spanish culture or food, but had had the seed sown in me for baccalà since reading Mark Kurlansky’s Cod: A Biography of a Fish That Changed the World on the beach this summer. Baccalà I wanted, and baccalà I received. Although I found myself in New Haven, sitting down at my table, I was afforded an old world, European hospitality. I passed on the appetizer. I was there for cod and did not want to allocate any of the limited space in my stomach to another mistress. Although my resolve was nearly broken as my friends' appetizers appeared, I parceled out my piece of bread diligently. And then it arrived. Springing forth from a round plate, as if the latest piece in MOMA, a slab of bias cut, cod. A potato vegetable puree was nestled beneath. I surveyed the scene, sliced a piece, and delivered it to my mouth via fork. Mr. Kurlansky was right. Salted cod really did change the world. I’ll be seeking out the hot, snow-white flakes regularly henceforth. The taste of the homemade cinnamon ice cream (a favorite of mine) was quickly forgotten that night. The baccalà will never be.

As much as I enjoyed these two dinners, it was a whim luncheon experience that was the true highlight of my weekend. Like most of the Yale students a few blocks from my hotel, I slept late that Sunday. I planned to have a leisurely morning and end up at the State Street Station by 2:21pm for my return train. Taking a walk down Crown Street on Saturday, I had spied a small red and black building. A lamp light that looked as old as the ones outside 21 Club hung over the stoop, it read “Louis’” – and a line was formed out the door. The place looked like it harkened back to the days when men (and only men) filled the lecture halls at Yale while wearing shirts with detachable collars. Always having been a reservations man myself, I was initially a bit dismissive about the prospect of waiting in line. After all this wasn’t the Shake Shack or the Summit Diner (inspiration for SNL’s classic “Cheeseburger, Cheeseburger, Pepsi, No Coke” skit) – just some tiny building across from a Salvation Army store and next to a monthly parking lot.

My curiosity got the better of me. In a move completely out of character, at 12:45pm that Sunday I joined the line than began at 263 Crown Street and stretched past the monthly parking lot. There were at least forty-five people on line already. Standing on the street in front of me were two mechanics from Hartford. Behind me were two retired couples from Massachusetts who upon reading a Boston Glove article on the 50 Best Burgers in the nation were, ”tasting our way across the country.” We were all Louis’ virgins. A camaraderie emerged between us in the thirty minutes we spent standing outside before we made it into the luncheonette. One by one, each of our number took the step up off the flagstone walk into the brick building – into a most wonderful aroma of hamburgers. From signage inside, I quickly learned a few things: no ketchup, no condiments of any nature, onions and tomatoes are the only acceptable toppings, cheese or no cheese. As I waited an additional hour inside the thirteen-seater, I found out Louis’, was a veritable institution – claiming to be the birthplace of the hamburger. As I waited in the most American of mangers, I even spied on the wall a letter of commendation from Bill Clinton. When my time came in line to order, reminiscent of an infamous Seinfeld episode, I was all business, “Original Burger, onions – medium-rare, please.” A full half hour after that, “CHRISTOPHER,” was bellowed by some descendant of Louis himself. As there was no room to eat inside, I took my hamburger (cloaked in wax paper) and sat out on the curb. Looking at my watch, I realized I missed my train. Needless to say, it was the best $5.25 I spent that weekend.



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