Having operated Lily Ruth’s bistro in downtown Galt for many years, Steven Allen and his wife and business partner Rachelle Matlow decided to close up shop and focus on their catering contracts, as a way to reduce the 100-hour weeks that can characterize the restaurant industry. But they never expected what happened soon after they opened Little Louie’s Burger Joint & Soupery.
“We thought that opening a catering company full-time would free us up most of the week for our daughter. Since the building we bought was a former burger joint, we thought we’d stay true to the history and would have been happy selling 20 or so burgers each lunch. Today, for instance, we sold 300. We never imagined that evolution. It’s crazy,” Allen says.
Granted, achieving this kind of numbers in a venue that seats about 30 inside, with a few picnic tables outside, took a couple of years. But it still surprised them, and it’s why the Cambridge-based chef and culinary entrepreneur regularly uses the restaurant vernacular “getting slammed” to describe his daily schedule from time to time. What with overseeing Little Louie’s and the catering enterprises, Allen and Matlow do get pretty busy.
Open since 2010 the small burger joint — and joint is the right word — is curiously tucked in amid residences on Clyde Road between Franklin Boulevard and Elgin Street North in Cambridge. It’s a wonderfully quirky decades-old building, if not simply a slap-dash construction, apparently with sections of two old Dairy Queen buildings lined up and bolted together. That fits precisely and exactly with the character you’d want in a joint that carries such an improbable name — and which makes a mean hamburger, some mighty fine fries, and malted milkshakes among other dishes.
The building, nestled amidst some scruffy trees and sitting adjacent to a gravel parking lot, is reminiscent of the old-school roadside burger joints that used to open each spring on the highways and byways heading north into Ontario cottage country, where the cicadas drone, the soil gets rocky and the forest starts to become boreal. It’s an image that Allen appreciates as he details the heritage of the wooden cottage-like structure. “This used to be the place to go back in the 1970s for burgers and shakes. It was called Henning’s, and has been a plethora of places since,” he says. “As for the name, my father was Big Louie, and I was always called Little Louie growing up.”
Any re-run of the episode of Food Network’s You Gotta Eat Here which featured Little Louie’s a few years ago, results in an influx of new customers. That ups the culinary ante: cooking up a thousand top-quality burgers weekly is no little feat. It means putting in some time to achieve the standard expected by his customers. So the key to success, Allen intimates, is being there pretty much day to day. “We’re there to manage the business,” he says. Allen has a world of experience, from cooking in Europe to current duties teaching in the culinary program at Conestoga College. He has also operated kitchens in vessels sailing high into Canada’s north, and all of that experience has been narrowed down now to checking local farm stores and farm-gate sales to determine how the menu will look. As well, Allen is an expert forager, and those wild discoveries of ramps and fiddleheads — perhaps pheasant’s back mushroom too — will quite often find their way onto the menu. “There are a lot of ways we do local,” he says.
As for Little Louie’s menu, it appears on chalkboards and changes regularly. The ordering process is Build Your Own Burger: you go to the counter, take a little clipboard, pencil in the several steps, and add your name. Your choices are dine-in or take-out, followed by the burger size you want, or a double-beef slider selection. (DiPietro’s, a local butcher just around the corner, grinds the meat daily.)
From the changing burger menu, you choose from 20 or so condiments, cheeses, and sauces, including fried egg, olives, sprouts, basil pesto, mesquite and mango. Sautéed mushrooms will add earthy flavour and release their own heady juices. Gouda cheese provides a smoky note and the humble tomato slice offers a slight acidity to enliven the mixture, along with a few pickled banana peppers. The bread to hold it all together is a soft, fresh challah-like egg bun with a hint of sweetness, and enough body in its crumb to corral everything. There are chicken breast, turkey, and veggie burger choices, as well as a couple of sandwiches and five or six homemade soups. “We’ve done hundreds of soups,” Allen says. He’s from Cape Breton, so he knows how to put together a chowder, chunked up properly with seafood. Some eastern European in his lineage also gives him a particular acuity with things like borscht.
Homemade pastries like tarts, bars, and squares come from the kitchen as well, and are popular with the regulars. The old-fashioned malted milkshakes derive from malt that is used to make a simple syrup with vanilla. It’s taken some experimentation to get the balance right, but it forms the base for the vanilla, strawberry and chocolate shakes. “Then there are the crazy ones,” Allen says. “If I happen to see Frosted Flakes on sale, I will buy four boxes and make a Frosted Flake Shake. The most popular shake is the End of the Bar Shake, using pieces of the dessert bars we bake. For instance, we might do our version of the Oh Henry! Shake with the bar trimmings. We’ll sell 20 of them in a day.”
While it all makes for a very busy kitchen, not to mention the catering jobs that they cover, Allen says he strives to source ingredients from around him. “The local aspect of food here is phenomenal. As our restaurants grow in Cambridge and Waterloo Region, our access to nearby farmers and such a range of products is fantastic. I use Oakridge Acres for many ingredients. The Gerbers are great, and it saves me from having to go to 10 different farms.” It can also mean some unusual and even exotic local protein: on a recent menu was emu soup. “I had some emu in from a local emu farm and made burgers. With the leftover meat, I made some sausage and put it in a soup. Surprisingly, it sold like crazy,” he adds.
The quirkiness of the Little Louie’s building and its setting, the retro and nostalgic pylon sign, and that gravel parking lot all harken back to burger joints of the past. But the drive to Cambridge for burgers, fries and shakes is a lot shorter than to Muskoka, and the flavour is a vacation in itself. He says his regular customers know the lay of the land at Little Louie’s, citing a group who make the trip every Monday. “They want to be among the first to test out the burger of the week. I could put anything on a burger — grilled octopus and corn chutney — and they would eat it.”
Little Louie’s Burger Joint & Soupery
234 Clyde Road, Cambridge
Monday–Friday: 11 am – 8 pm