3516 Veterans Memorial Boulevard, Metairie LA 70002 (map); 504-885-4291
1541 U.S. 190, Slidell, LA 70460 (map); 985-641-6895
Cooking Method: Flat-top
Short Order: Tender, moist, well-seasoned burgers made from freshly ground beef loaded with grilled onions.
Want Fries with That?: Skip 'em for house-made onion rings.
Prices: Original Burger (Veteran's Blvd.) $4.69, Dressed Burger (Slidell) $4.30, Onion Rings (Veteran's Blvd.) $2.79
There are five Lee's Hamburgers scattered around the New Orleans Metropolitan area that all serve similar grilled onion-topped burgers, but they're not part of a chain. Who is Lee and why are so many places selling his burgers?
The answer dates back to 1901, when Lester "Lee" Hash opened his namesake burger joint on University Place in what is now New Orleans' Central Business District. He made his mark by piling chopped onions on top of freshly ground beef cooked on a cast iron griddle—and using a box fan to blow the aroma onto the street. Patrons of the original location next to the Orpheum Theater described its look as spare but always crowded with customers eating quickly to yield seats for those waiting behind them. It was loved by everyone from kids to the well-heeled fine dining crowd who would stop in for an after-dinner "fix." In the 1930s, many of the regulars were the hottest entertainers of the Supper Club Era stopping by for a burger after performing in the Blue Room of the neighboring Roosevelt Hotel. Hash would occasionally shut down to have private parties with his celebrity friends.
Lee's Hamburgers expanded in the early 1950s, when Hash's business partner and meat supplier Leon Saizan Sr. opened and operated a second location. In 1965, damage from Hurricane Betsy forced the original location to move farther away from the fading glamour of the Hollywood set, but Lee's remained an institution. Hash chopped the onions and worked the grill until his death in 1970. Saizan was given sole rights to the business, and soon after he retired from the meat business.
As a hobby during his retirement, Leon opened an outdoor Lee's Hamburgers stand in Slidell that ended up blooming into a flourishing business. During the 1970s a few franchised locations opened in New Orleans, promising strict oversight for quality.
Since then, several locations have come and gone, and the ones that remain aren't all created equal. Fueled by warm memories of visiting Lee's as a kid, I tried the location on Metairie Road in Old Metairie and left disappointed. Luckily, a location on Veterans Memorial Boulevard in Metairie lived up to my memories.
The Original ($4.69) with grilled onions, mayo, mustard, ketchup, and pickle is a departure from Hash's philosophy of mustard and onions only. The onions stand out at first glance, and the bun is warm, moist, and well proportioned. Per my request, the staff happily tried to cook the loosely packed ground chuck to medium instead of the usual well-done, but the difference was negligible.
The burger has the texture and flavor of a slider, right down to the warm bun that's steamed on the griddle while stacked atop the patty. Imagine eight White Castle patties with better quality meat stacked on one bun—that's kind of like this burger. The tender quarter-pound patty has little outside char, but it's well seasoned. It fits the profile of what I imagine one of America's oldest hamburgers would be like.
I passed over the frozen fries in favor of the onion rings ($2.79), which simply couldn't be any better. They're thick cut, lightly battered, crisp, and golden, with no trace that they had ever touched hot oil.
I'm sold on the Veterans' location, but after finding out that Saizan's son Carl and grandson Russell are still operating one Lee's in Slidell, it was time to cross Lake Pontchartrain. At this spot, Lee's history fills the walls in articles and old photos. More importantly, Russell can be found cooking the burgers on one of Lee Hash's original grills.
A motherload of chopped onions gets seared and steamed in piles, developing small areas of slightly sweet caramelization. Their welcome presence is more dramatic than at the other location on this quarter-pound Dressed burger ($4.30) featuring a tender, well seasoned patty of loosely-packed, freshly ground-in-house chuck topped with mayo, ketchup, mustard, pickle, lettuce, and tomato. It's fantastic, but I'd recommend the simpler lettuce- and tomato-free Regular burger as the best way to savor the onions and beef.
The burgers from both locations are very similar, with the exception of the buns. The one in Slidell is topped with sesame seeds and is a bit wider than the patty. Both buns are supermarket variety, but the one on Veterans' seems to absorb more warmth from steam, and it's a better fit for the patty. Even though both versions use four-ounce patties, Slidell's feels like it has more heft.
Both the Veterans location and the Slidell location have their own merits. Burger history buffs might find a trek to the location in Slidell more rewarding, but either spot works for tasting an onion-filled piece of burger history.
I found most of the information about the history of Lee's from articles written by Frank Schneider for Times-Picayune hanging on the walls of the Slidell location. Since I can't find the articles published online, here are photos of the articles below, linked to larger versions.