In Defense of the White Castle Hamburger
Introducing "Schaefer," in which Eric Schaefer -- a local guy with a big (but discerning) appetite and a sense of humor to match -- takes on the Phoenix food scene. (And this week, New Jersey.)
Enough with "sliders" already. Brisket sliders. Ahi sliders. Jewish sliders. (Looking at you, Chompies.) Short rib sliders. And just plain sliders. Call them what you will, but they're not "sliders." A true slider is one thing and one thing only: a White Castle hamburger.
And that's precisely why one of my first stops when visiting my in-laws in New York/New Jersey (from where I'm writing this) is a gritty White Castle outpost on a lonely stretch of Route 17 in Hasbrouck Heights, New Jersey. That's right; I'm literally minutes away from New York City and some of the best food that the world has to offer and I choose to bask in the clinical fluorescent glare of the restaurant chain that trademarked the term "Slyder" (they used a "y") and also serves something called a "chicken ring." Worth noting: Many of the White Castle restaurants use a distinctive bulletproof mechanism to deliver burgers at the drive-thru. Honestly, I feel safer inside.
But safety is obviously nowhere near the forefront of my mind when I gorge on my standard order of 10 White Castles with cheese, no ketchup. I can do eight with ease; the last two take some effort. My dad claims to have once done 13. I should be more concerned with my proximity to a cardiac unit, given that my typical order yields approximately 1,700 calories, 90 grams of fat, and 5,500 milligrams of sodium. It's edible diabetes and worth every day that this infrequent indulgence shaves off my expected life span. Salty, savory, delicious diabetes. White Castle is the original umami bomb, conveying the fifth sense long before food nerds and losers caught on to the Japanese concept of "umami" and waxed poetic about it.
I grew up in the midwest and have happy memories of my dad taking me for White Castles on a Sunday afternoon. I think they cost about a quarter back then, although my dad still tells me about when they used to cost a nickel. (And how he walked uphill both ways to school in a blizzard across streams of hot lava and gunfire, without shoes.) I'd be lying if I didn't admit that, for me, part of the allure of White Castles is that they delivery a hefty dose of nostalgia . . . Salty reminders of a simpler time. Belly Bombers. Skillet Scabs. Gut Grenades.
But they're also delicious. No "slider" that I've ever had comes close to the magic found inside of a White Castle cardboard box. Just because a burger is small doesn't mean it's good. These days, every restaurant in town offers a "slider" variant, which is usually something rather ordinary, served on a small bun. Ooooh . . . It's small . . . Let's call it a "slider."
A White Castle was never a smaller version of something bigger; it was always intended to be this way and, because of that, the ratios are spot-on. Just the right amount of meat relative to the bun. Squishy and spongy. The crunch of the pickle. And in between the meat and bun is an unexplained chemical phenomenon that yields a gooey, onion-y layer of flavor packed gelatinous bread. It's way better than it sounds and undoubtedly the direct result of the White Castle meat patties being steam-cooked on a bed of onions.
I generally shudder at the use of the word "mouthfeel," but there is no other way to classify the unique experience of eating a White Castle; it has a mouthfeel unlike any other.
I strongly discourage you from making your first White Castle experience the store-bought variants, found in the freezer section. They lack the pickles, and the microwave just can't do what a steamy bed of onions can. You're also much safer eating them inside of an actual White Castle Restaurant (found predominantly throughout the Midwest and parts of New York and New Jersey). The older locations used a white porcelain block on the exterior facade and legend has it that they'd likely be one of the last structures standing in the event of thermonuclear war. And then there's that whole bulletproof glass thing, which speaks for itself. Food so good that people are willing to use firepower to get it, right?
You can have your Humanely Raised Free Range Gluten-Free Never-Breathed-the-Same-Air-as-a-Peanut Ahi Slider With Some Sort of Wasabi Aioli Bullshit. If you think that's a slider, you're a fool -- and a fussy fool at that. Me? I'm sticking with the real deal: low-grade meat served on a soggy bun with some onions, pickles, processed cheese and grease. This is a slider, and it's worth walking uphill both ways to get one. In a blizzard, or whatever else you can throw at me. Or just in New Jersey.