Sometimes, when I'm speeding down 6th Street after it swoops you off the 710, I'll pass the corner of Atlantic and wonder who the hell was Louie III?
At least that's what I questioned for five years when I lived only blocks away from Long Beach's Louis ("lou-eee") Burger, before I discovered that the string of Is on the sign denotes not Louie's title, but the location's place as the third one in a chain of South Los Angeles American burger barns.
But Louis Burger still became known in downtown circles as "King Louie III," more of a regal person than a budget-friendly greasehouse where the chili only has meat in it and the fries are always thick and salty.
Like many of the other burger joints in Long Beach, truant teenagers in colorful uniforms often stumble in around lunchtime, plopping down $3 for a thick and juicy cheeseburger or splitting $6 pastrami burritos on the small patch of grass outside.
Most adults opt to eat indoors despite the Southwest-inspired 80s pastel décor that gives it that "Palm Springs timeshare" vibe: pink booths and tables, baby blue ceramic display vases and planters filled with half-dead poinsettias. Whoever Louie III is, he should fire his interior designer.
The food, however, is sublime as is--everything you could ever want from a place with a modular Coca Cola branded menu board.
A BLT on toasted white bread is only $4.40, the same price as a patty melt, which comes with sweet grilled onions on buttery, crunchy rye. And a tuna sandwich is only $6, a fair price for two ice cream scoops of the mayo-loaded fish salad on sourdough. For a few cents more, though, they'll turn the sammy into a "melt," which basically just amounts to a browned butter exterior, since no amount of time on the grill could ever actually warm the thick chunk of tuna within (or the massive cuts of white American cheese that line the bread).
But Louis Burger's most loved offering is not even its namesake burgers, but instead its chili cheese fries--a loaded mountain of warmed sliced potatoes, bean-free chili and handfuls of orange cheese shreds all waiting to be gobbled up by as many forks as are on the table. Since everything on the menu is a la carte (no lunch specials!), the chili fries are an epic side dish built for sharing, one that has brought fans from as far away as North Long Beach to the alter of King Louie.
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Attempts to escape the meat-and-calorie overload that emanates from everything pushed over the counter at Louis Burgers are fruitless. Just accept that unless you are interested in a $4 plate of cut up iceberg (their take on a "green salad"), you will be eating most or all of your daily allowances in one sitting.
In a neighborhood filled with either chain fast food or upscale Arts District eats, Louis Burger lives up to its slogan as "The Best in Town," the only independently owned burger spot this side of Poly Burger and the only place in downtown to eat like an American-food king on a pauper's pay scale.
And even though my ventures inside Louis Burgers are less frequent since I moved, every time I pass the locally iconic corner sign, I still say a prayer of thanks for the imaginary King Louie III, his affordable California-style burgers and his treasure trove of chili fry decadence.
Louis Burgers, 555 Atlantic Ave., Long Beach, (562) 437-4078