Louie’s hamburgers were a culinary staple in Sheridan for almost 50 years. Thousands of people, parts of three generations, ate at his hamburger stand on Grinnell Avenue. At Louie’s you gave your order from the street through a window to the bespectacled little man in the greasy apron who worked his wonders in the bubbling grease of his hot grill. Louie would always ask in his high pitched voice, “You wan onyon? You wan peekle?”
Louie’s hamburgers were hot, greasy morsels wrapped in wax paper. Today they would be considered cholesterol-laden artery cloggers. They might have been but they were the most delicious things you could imagine. Many believe the secret was in the grease. I’m in that camp.
Clara Blakeman Lehman once gave a vivid description of Louie’s hamburger operation: “…I can still smell those ‘greasy’ hamburgers—you could smell them a block away, and the aroma always made me hungry. But most of all, I remember watching him slice the onions. He could slice a large onion into many THIN (sic) slices in just 3 or 4 seconds. He took a large knife (must have been extra sharp) and just went Whack, Whack, Whack…& it was all sliced before you could blink.” Louie applied the same culinary wizardry to pickles.
Louie’s real name was Zarif Kahn. He was born in Afghanistan in what is present day Pakistan in 1884. Traces of his early life are murky. How or why he immigrated to the United States is not really known. He arrived in Sheridan in 1910 when he was about 26 years old. Three years earlier he arrived in San Francisco and worked in several other places, including Lead and Deadwood, S.D., and Buffalo, Wyo. before settling in Sheridan. Supposedly he went to Mexico at one time to learn to cook. This seems highly probable because in addition to his trademark hamburgers Louie sold tamales in the early days and was often called “Hot Tamale Louie.”
When he first came to Sheridan, Louie sold hamburgers and tamales from kettles suspended from a yoke around his neck. According to one source, Louie lost his beard to the flames of the Canned Heat he fixed under the kettles to keep the food warm. Later, Louie dispensed his wares from a cart as he traveled up and down the dusty Main Street of Sheridan. Eventually, he purchased a small shop on Grinnell Street called “Louie’s” and he adopted the shop name as his own. From then on, Sheridan residents knew him as “Hot Tamale Louie” or “Hamburger Louie.”
Louie became wealthy but one source reported that he went broke at least once during the process. He was a shrewd investor especially in mining stocks. For instance, he reportedly bought thousands of shares of a mine called Lucky Friday for 30 cents each which later became worth about $35 each. Louie didn’t spend the money on a flashy lifestyle; rather, he was very generous. During World War II he sent gifts overseas to service men. He also built several mosques in his native Pakistan.
An anecdote, provided by Barbara Bentley Pisanechi a long time ago illustrated his generosity: “At one point Louie took the accountant….back to Pakistan with him so that they could make arrangements to do something for the village where Louie was born. They decided on putting in a well, and that’s what was done…”
“Louie also had his pants tailor made, and they had all kinds of secret pockets in them so that he could carry large sums of money,” she added.
Louie, related to a Pakistani president as well as other Pakistani officials, often went overseas for a visit to his homeland. On one of the trips, in 1952, when Louie was 68, he chose a 16-year-old girl, Fatima, as his wife. Louie brought Fatima back to Sheridan and in the next 12 years produced six children. They were born like clockwork every two years.
One of the trips back to the homeland ended in tragedy. On July 5, 1963, Louie and his wife and children left the United States for the Village Bara in West Pakistan. On June 23, 1964, shortly before he planned to return to Sheridan, Louie was fatally stabbed by a distant relative over a land dispute. He was buried there with Muslim rites at the age of 80. Fatima returned to Sheridan and raised her children.
Louie was a unique and colorful fixture in Sheridan for a long time and his death 49 years ago marked the end of a special culinary era in Sheridan. Those of us who were around during the time can still remember Louie and taste his hamburgers.
Tom Ringley was re-elected as a county commissioner in 2012. He is the author of four books. Ringley grew up in Sheridan and returned home in 1990 after 27 years as an Air Force officer. He has been involved with the local hospital foundation, the Sheridan-Wyo-Rodeo and has been the facilities director at the county fairgrounds.