Courtesy of USA Today
The scene: There’s a good reason why the Harold & Kumar comedy film franchise kicked off with the duo visiting White Castle, and not McDonalds or Burger King: No other patty elicits the kind of emotional and visceral response among burger fans. The love/hate factions are vocal, but in general, if you grew up with the unusual taste of White Castle, you may well love it. If you didn’t, you might find it very hard to accept.
I grew up with it, with a 24-hour White Castle blocks away from home, and I unabashedly love the stuff. Over nearly four decades, I have eaten at White Castle far more times than I could possibly remember. Once, after moving to White-Castle-free Vermont, I bought dozens of their frozen sandwiches and threw a White Castle dinner party. Guests were starkly divided between those who had eaten the burgers before and were wowed, and those who hadn’t, who were largely disgusted. I should mention that because of the burger’s unique texture, it actually reheats very well from frozen in a microwave – very well if you love a mushy burger, that is — something no other burger will do.
Unlike most competitors, White Castle is family-owned and privately held, not franchised. It was launched in Wichita, Kansas, in 1921 and claims to be, among other things: the first burger chain, the first to sell a million burgers, a billion burgers, and to sell its burgers frozen in supermarkets (nationwide). Of course, it is easier to rack up big numbers when you sell tiny burgers – White Castle is the original “slider,” the now-common term for mini-burgers, and has even registered “The Original Slider.” Every time you see a slider on a menu today, even from celebrity chefs and at fancy restaurants, it is an homage to this unique chain. The company’s current slogan is “What You Crave,” but when I was young it was “Buy ‘em by the sack” – which we did. It is not unusual for customers to order 4-8 burgers as a meal. When the chain launched in 1921 burgers were a nickel, and as late as 1950 they could be had for a dime. Prices vary nationally now, but in the New York City metro area a burger is 76¢ and a cheeseburger 94¢.
Today every White Castle remains white on the outside, though not necessarily castle-shaped. They vary a lot, from full-on 24 hour restaurants doing mostly eat-in to highway drive-thrus. One thing they all have in common is an “open kitchen,” with a view of the burgers cooking, usually behind a wall of glass. Interiors are starkly fast food, with synthetic tables and chairs, stainless steel and glass counters, and overhead menu boards with prices. Each sandwich and order of fries or onion rings comes in an individual cardboard box, open on one side.
Reason to visit: Hamburger, cheeseburger
The food: White Castle beef patties are 100% beef, which is all they have in common with most other fast-food hamburgers. The patties are square, about 2 ½ inches on each side, thin, and each has five holes. They are cooked on a large flattop griddle, in a very particular way. First, the griddle is covered with ladles full of liquidy chopped onions. The frozen patties are arranged methodically on top, and since they are square, the entire cooking surface is covered. Because of the holes, and the fact they sit on the onions, the patties steam, rather than grill or fry, and do not have to be flipped. Partway through this odd process, the small square buns are placed on top of the patties, so the bread steams too, and when they are finished cooking, each is sort of flipped with a spatula and sleight of hand so the patty ends up between the buns. Pickle slice and ketchup are then added, plus a slice of yellow American cheese if you order a cheeseburger.
As a result of this steaming process, what really makes the White Castle burger unique is not its small stature, but rather its soggy, doughy consistency. Once the burger is complete, it is not designed to be reopened, and the roll and meat sort of meld together into one mushy, three-bite sandwich. This moist consistency is either addictive or off-putting, depending on your perspective, and is to burgers what the steamed Chinese pork bun is to meat pies. Love it or hate it, it is most definitely one of a kind, and if you love it, the taste is highly addictive, hence the slogan “What You Crave.”
If you already know White Castle, my advice won’t help you at all. If you don’t, there are some things you should consider before exploring this special take on the burger. First, while I always prefer cheeseburgers to plain hamburgers, this is even more pronounced at White Castle, because the cheese adds a whole another dimension of gluiness. If you are eating a burger that is melded into a single piece, you might as well go all the way. In the opposite vein, the double burger, double cheeseburger, and especially the bacon cheeseburger don’t work well, even though I normally consider bacon an indispensable burger topping. These extra layers disrupt the cohesion and special texture, and turn the result into just an average, miniature fast-food burger. Instead of the double, get two regular sliders – you’ll thank me.
Everything else at White Castle is window dressing. If you are about to eat half a dozen burgers, a side of fries or onion rings helps break things up, and the onion rings are tasty in a junk-food kind of way, but they are a far cry from high quality rings, while the limp, crinkle-cut fries are mediocre at best. They serve fried fish sliders, like McDonalds Filet-O-Fish only smaller; chicken rings, a very unnatural take on fried chicken in the shape of onion rings; and even a chicken ring slider. They do breakfast sandwiches and all sorts of short-run special edition foods, but most are simply small versions of other fast foods. It is only the burgers and cheeseburgers that offer the bizarre consistency completely unique to White Castle.
What regulars say: “I’ll have eight cheeseburgers, one onion rings, and a fries,” is what the person in front of you is likely to say.
Pilgrimage-worthy?: Yes – when you get the craving.
Rating: Yum! (Scale: Blah, OK, Mmmm, Yum!, OMG!)
Price: $ ($ cheap, $$ moderate, $$$ expensive)
Details: IN 12 states: IL, IN, KY, MI, MN, MO, NJ, NY, OH, TN, PA and WI; whitecastle.com/