Kevin LaMay, founder of , opens up the burger box and lets the steam pour out. It rushes from the shoebox-sized steel container to reveal a set of trays that hold the rectangular patties. LaMay has to constantly open the doors to let the steam out as it rises from a deep metal pan filled with boiling water below the boxes.
While K. LaMay’s started in the back corner of a bar kitchen four years ago, its owner had cooked “steamers” almost 20 years before that at Ted’s Restaurant—a Meriden staple since 1959. There, LaMay learned from Ed “Whitey” Gwara who’d been steaming burgers for 45 years.
“They need to breathe,” he says. “The biggest part is not letting them overcook. You want the burger medium-well to well-done.”
Steamed burgers themselves—well no one is really sure when or where or how they came about. The best guess is that they originated in Central Connecticut sometime around 1900, but there isn’t much to go by. For the better part of the last century they've been synonymous with the area — featured in national magazines and newspapers and even a presence on TV shows like Man vs. Food.
LaMay takes one of the burgers from its tray, dumps out the oil and fat which has accumulated around it, and throws it onto a fresh roll already dressed with lettuce, tomato, onions, and pickles.
“The key is the cheese, though,” he says as he lifts a tray from a separate steam box, pouring freshly melted sharp cheddar onto the burger. “That makes the whole thing. Mild cheddar is a lot cheaper, so people are trying to get away with it, but you can taste the difference immediately.”
The cheese only takes about three minutes to melt while the meat takes about seven, so it’s a tough balancing act. LaMay is always fiddling with the water temperatures to make sure one doesn’t outrace the other.
K. LaMay’s Meriden location at 690 E. Main St. in Meriden is almost a self-sustaining entity by now, he says, so LaMay and co-owner Matt Kokoloszka spend most of their time at their new , at 170-5 Main Street, opened in June.
“I had some money saved up, so I was going to buy a house,” LaMay says, “but I looked at things and just decided to give it a shot. It worked the first time.”
Both owners say things have been going well in Middletown so far, but they’re looking forward to the college crowd that will come in when Wesleyan University starts classes in September.
“That’s 3,500 more potential customers within walking distance,” Kokoloszka says. “I think we’re going to see an immediate pick up in business when they get going.”
Right now, it’s all about accommodating new customers. They’re just getting to know the future regulars, the lifeblood of any sustainable restaurant.
“Hey, you look familiar. Do I know you from somewhere?” LaMay asks a customer as he puts together the order of burgers.
“Yeah, I was in here yesterday,” the man says. “I got some burgers for my dad and now he wants me to pick some up for his friends.”
“See?” LaMay says confidently as soon as the customer walked out. “If you give them a good burger, they’ll be back.”