Little Louie's Cohnan is a barbarian of a burger
Brad "Cohnan" Cohen has to hold on to "The Cohnan" burger between bites, or risk it falling apart like a Bears Red Zone drive. His wife, he said, doesn't object to his dangerous dining: "She knows there's a sandwich named after me, and she's very proud."
Updated: September 30, 2011 11:50AM
Brad Cohen says that The Cohnan, the massive meat bomb that bears his nickname, is more than a sandwich.
"It's a workout," he said. "And a commitment."
That's because once you pick up The Cohnan -- two 1/3-pound hamburger patties, a half pound of French fries, four strips of bacon, Merkt's cheddar cheese and an over-easy egg, all on a bun -- you can't put it down.
Not because it's so fascinating but because it will implode, collapsing into a meaty, eggy 'tater stew.
"You can't let go, otherwise you gotta go fork and knife," said Peter Weiss, the man who created it.
Cohen is a customer and old Highland Park pal of Weiss, who since 1999 has owned Little Louie's Red Hots, a Northbrook landmark. Cohen asked Weiss to make the sandwich for him, and last summer, it was elevated to the menu as a 24-ounce, $9.75 item called Velvet Thunder. Cohen's buddies quickly lobbied to have it be renamed for him.
He picked up the nickname Cohnan at Highland Park High School, where, compared to many of his fellows, he -- and his older brother before him -- looked like Arnold Schwarzenegger's Conan the Barbarian.
"Just being a large Jewish guy," he said. "There aren't too many of us, and it sticks out when you go 6-2, 220, and the average guy is 5-8, 130."
Around Chicago, people smile and look away if you suggest putting French fries on a sandwich. But it's big in Pittsburgh.
The story goes that Joe Primanti started selling potato-laden sandwiches from a pushcart to truck drivers and freight-handlers on the Pittsburgh Strip who wanted a whole meal they could hold in one hand while working with the other.
This is not exactly the situation for Cohen, 41, a Highland Park money manager. He doesn't have to actually load the money on trucks.
But he travels to Pittsburgh a couple times a year, and was sold on the fries idea at the Primanti Brothers restaurants.
The Cohnan needs no garnish, he said: "The yolk from the egg kinda serves as the condiment."
The Primantis also like to toss eggs on sandwiches. And years ago Louie's had a much smaller egg-on-a-burger item called the Billburger. But Cohen says he doesn't remember either as the source of the egg segment of his concept.
"Maybe in a dream?" he asked.
Weiss has a huge menu that covers two walls of the store at 1342 Shermer Road. Many newer additions are actually healthy, a shock to older customers who just think of Louie's as the place where the grease from the fries leak through the paper bags.
But Weiss also has a secret menu, listing about 25 sandwiches he and customers collaborate upon, all waiting for a decent level of popularity to graduate to the first string.
The surest way to prove a sandwich's readiness for prime time, of course, is for the sandwich originator and his buddies to repeatedly order it.
One of the secret sandwiches is The Detroit Army, the brainchild of Todd Lansky, a transplanted Michigander. It's marinated chicken strips, spicy chipotle mayo, melted jack cheese and a little sauerkraut, on garlic bread.
Alas, it founders in obscurity, because he has not ordered it enough to elevate it to the Big Board.
"I have not done right by my sandwich," sighed Lansky, as he chewed a more demure cheeseburger.
"I just can't do it every day. I'm not as big as those guys."
One guy who has driven his creation into the big time is Weiss' brother-in-law Greg Gilberg. He invented the $7.50 Von Dripsy: buffalo chicken strips, French fries, Merkt's, chopped tomato and celery, and ranch dressing, all wrapped up in a one-pound package by a flour tortilla.
"It's the greatest hangover sandwich on the planet," he said.
"It makes me feel better. All the foods that I love, just combined."
Most of the people with sandwiches on the secret list -- all men -- are regulars, and look forward to running into each other almost daily at Little Louie's. Several in their 30s and early 40s play basketball in the same Tuesday league at the Sachs Recreation Center in Deerfield.
One of the players, and the league's boss, is Highland Park's Stu Nitzkin, who polished off a Von Dripsy with relish one recent Tuesday afternoon. He saw an extra Cohnan on the Pioneer Press table, so he ate that, too.
A few hours later, he was running up and down the court in Deerfield.
"And he was great," Lansky said later. "He played unbelievable."
No big deal, said Nitzkin.
"I play basketball every Tuesday, and usually have four jumbo char-dogs for my pre-game meal."
He shrugged. "I have skills like that."