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The great New Haven hamburger-off

BY RACHEL KAMINS

I recently emerged from a two-and-a-half year bout of vegetarianism, starting shortly after I had received my acceptance to Yale. I was aware that by ripping up my beef card, I would be missing out on two essential Eli experiences: the Doodle burger and the late-night Louis' run. As a big eater and a big lover of tradition, I found this unacceptably distressing. So I cheated. One evening early in freshman year, I went to the Doodle and did my patriotic duty. And one drunken midnight sophomore year, I tagged along to Louis'. The only other time I ever ate red meat, it was another hamburger, flipped with love from the grill at a JE tailgate.
ERIN I. LEWIS/YH

These hamburgers meant more to me than just the beef they were made of. There's a lot of significance behind a burger, and not just in my mind. The image of a juicy patty fringed with lettuce, surrounded by fries, is one of the most American symbols of the 20th century. We're talking about the nation's staple food here—who knows how many billions served—as integral to the consciousness of most citizens as Tom Hanks, but also as easily capable of running the range from stomach-turning (think YUDS) to palatable to mind-blowing.

By claiming to be the birthplace of the burger, New Haven has placed upon itself an awesome burden—the duty to provide meat-eaters with restaurants that serve the best damn burgers this side of the Atlantic. Can we do it? Can the burgers of the Elm City fulfill the hopes and dreams of a nation? A recent survey of six New Haven beef joints, conducted by my stomach, says we've got what it takes.

YOU PLACE YOUR ORDER AND THEN WATCH AS RICK Doodle slaps a patty on the grill, sprinkles it with onion, covers it with a frying-pan lid, and drops a bun nearby to toast. Fifteen seconds later, before the cue to drool has even traveled from your brain to your mouth, bun gets buttered, burger meets bun, teeth get busy. This is some kind of crazy burger, in every good sense of the word, as thin as it is quick as it is tasty. It's subtle—a subtle burger. The tiny cup of tomato relish on the side, the drop of butter, and the dash of onion work together like the instruments of a Goddamn orchestra, each surfacing briefly for a captivating solo and then blending harmoniously into the ensemble.

I wax poetic about this burger, but with more of a rhyming couplet than an entire sonnet. The only problem with the Doodle Burger: it's really small. So you order more than one, I've been told. They are cheap, only $1.80 a pop, and obviously it doesn't take a long time to get seconds, so it's not a huge problem. I just find it a bit disconcerting that the burger is designed not to take you all the way home.

MAYBE I HANG OUT WITH TOO MANY TOFU-EATERS. It seems strange to me that I've only been to the Educated Burgher three or four times in nearly three years. Are you the same way? Well, get over it. This place is a classic college hangout. It's got location, it's got bargain prices, and it's got some mighty fine burgers. The cheeseburger I ordered came out of the kitchen in just a couple minutes, but it was a solid third of a pound of beef that took a nice chewy time to get through. The patty was juicy and well-shaped. A little ketchup, some nice firm tomatoes, and an amusing handful of crispy lettuce that kept falling out the bottom—what more could I ask for? Nothing, really. I wouldn't say that I saw God or anything, but I certainly commented more than once on the quality.

Because I feel compelled to use a metaphor, I can describe the feeling I got from this burger as similar to meeting a Yale freshman. Untainted by apathy, all its necessary elements were in place, and so well-proportioned and arranged that, even if I was not quite blown away, I couldn't help but be impressed. By the way, I picked up a chocolate chip cookie on the way out that cost only 50 cents. That was like having sex with a Yale freshman.

IF YOU'RE NOT IN TD, LET ME TELL YOU ABOUT THIS great little restaurant out on Whitney Avenue—Clark's Pizza and Restaurant, next to Clark's Dairy, home of the best chocolate peanut butter cookie dough ice cream I've had since Ben & Jerry's took theirs off the market. The restaurant half of the business is a full-blown diner, with everything on the menu from souvlaki to a side of cole slaw. Our order was taken by a sassy and dwarfish older woman, the kind with enough personality to get your order wrong (I asked for lemonade, she brought Coke) and still get a healthy tip. And the atmosphere is somewhat refreshing in that it's frequented by Yale employees, but not Yale students.

These non-essential details, I must admit, are somewhat more interesting than the hamburgers themselves. The patties are thin, probably just over a quarter-pound, and shaped in a sort of straggly mann-er, which at least is a good indication that they're handmade. While the flavor should be described as primarily bland, occasionally it was also rather charred. Definitely a case for ketchup. The bun, however, was very nice, a little toasted and a little sweet, and the shoestring fries were in abundance. All told, I recommend getting a burger at Clark's for a return to that down-home diner experience, where lack of quality is almost a point of charm.

RAINBOW CAFé SERVES MEAT? THIS I DID NOT KNOW. In a former life, I considered this below-ground Chapel Street restaurant a vegetarian enclave, and I there enjoyed many a harvest burger. To digress from the cow momentarily, the harvest burger is an mix of beans, grains, cheese, and curry that'll knock your socks off. It's large, soft, aromatic...the addition of a feta-garlic sauce is a stroke of genius.

To digress really far, I must mention Claire's veggie burger. Another delicious monstrosity, just like their cake, this baby fills you up and never lets you down. It's made from bulgur and a lot of other crunchy things you could almost feel good about eating if the whole deal weren't topped with jack and guacamole. Claire's—the downfall of every vegetarian who's doing it to lose weight.

Right, where was I? Ah yes, flesh. The Rainbow Café does indeed serve it, to the tune of $7.95. I got the Mexicali burger, which comes with cheddar, salsa, and avocado chunks on top, in addition to curly fries on the side. It was a sloppy affair, avocado everywhere, not least in my lap. But the toppings were absolutely essential. The burger itself, like at Clark's only 30 times bigger, was not very flavorful. If I had gotten this burger plain it would have been difficult to get all that unadulterated beef past my taste buds. As it was, things went down smoothly enough that I could do serious damage to the excellent fries and to one of the Rainbow's eight-pound cookies. I wouldn't tell you to go to this place for the express purpose of eating a hamburger. But if the cookies, the dim and flowery pastel interior, and the bustling crowd of Yale students pull you in at the same time as you happen to be in a burger mood, just go for it. You can't walk out of that place unhappy.

BETTER KNOWN AS THE PLACE YOU TAKE YOUR PARents' wallets to eat pumpkin soup, Tibwin also has a reasonably priced midday menu including the seven-dollar Tibwin Burger. I sat at the beautiful bar and read while the witty bartender served up drinks and banter, and, eventually, my lunch. The burger here is another big boy, in the vicinity of half a pound. It is also another non-fabulous taste sensation. Ketchup, please? The toppings in this case are mesclun greens, grilled white onion, and Swiss cheese, none of which is a real zinger, despite their originality. The fries, on the other hand—long, thick, soft on the inside, crunchy and sprinkled with sea salt on the outside. And the muzak was Sinatra-like tunes from the '40s and '50s. I had developed by this point an appreciation for how much a burger's environment can contribute to the eating experience. Going by that criterion, the Tibwin burger is classy, classy, classy.

THE BURGER at Louis' Lunch needs no environment. Seriously, you could eat it in a sewage ditch and still fall in love. This is what Louis prides himself on, refusing to serve ketchup and placing his patties on plain white toast. It's in this little brick hut on Crown Street that the hamburger is purported to have been born, and the staff takes itself seriously, so if you go there you have to play along. Just to be spiteful, perhaps, I took advantage of all the available toppings: cheese, tomato, and onion—but to be honest, I didn't really notice them. Having been cooked clamped between two grilling surfaces in an ancient-looking vertical flame oven, the burger itself was tender, juicy, and a little salty—an unusual flavor that was just the thing to make several huge mouthfuls of ground beef stay interesting. It wasn't too big, so it didn't leave me in a stupor, but it wasn't too small, so I did get filled up.

As many have done before me, I pronounce the Louis' burger to be the best in New Haven. Just as Pepe's and Sally's always take home the pizza honors, Louis' permanently wears the laurels for best beef in New Haven, possibly in America. After six burgers in three days, I'm not the one to go find out, but I'll wager that the Louis' burger beats every patty from California to the New York Island. Graphic by Erin I. Lewis.

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