...Don't get me wrong. A big, overstuffed, freshly ground "gourmet burger" can be a wonderful thing. The meat might be of a higher quality. The meat/fat ratio and the coarseness of the grind might be carefully calibrated, resulting in a juicier more satisfying burger. The condiments might be more flavorful, possibly more exotic and/or challenging, and they might even be non-industrial. The bun might be homemade or "artisanally produced." The burger might even come with a clever wine/craft beer pairing. But, more often than not, what distinguishes a so-called gourmet burger is its price tag ($10, $20, $30, $40, $50) and its pretentiousness (Kobe beef? Foie gras? Truffles?). And, if you're like me, sometimes you want something humbler, something that's a whole lot less busy, something that's closer to the burgers that became a popular favorite and swept the continent in the early 20th century. Sometimes you just want your burger smashed, with lots of onions. Sometimes you just want sliders. Sometimes you just want White Manna.*
fig. a: White Manna's cheeseburger
Not only do the good people at White Manna produce truly definitive sliders, but the experience of stepping through that Streamline entrance is a time portal experience that ranks up there with some of our favorites (like Clare & Carl's in Plattsburgh, or Wilensky's here in Montreal).
fig. b: White Manna, diner
There were no vintage hot wheels to be seen when we visited, like there were when Saveur featured White Manna in this collage from their "Burger Bible" issue (#122, September 2009),
fig. c: White Manna, icon
but it didn't matter a whit. The vintage diner interior, the menu ($1.30/cheeseburger), the counter repartee, the sizzle of the ground beef patties, and the sweet smell of the onions were plenty enough to transport us through time. I'm not sure if it took us back to 1946, when it opened, but it definitely took us deep into the 20th century.
What's the secret behind White Manna's sliders? Well, there's the quality of the beef meatball that is its foundation. There's the smashing of the meatball against the griddle, creating the slider patty form. There's the copious amount of thinly slice onions that is then pressed into the patty. There's the pillowy-soft potato bun. And, last, but not least, there are the pickles, which aren't the droopy, day-glo specimens you get at most burger joints--they've actually got snap (!), and flavor (!!)--they actually taste like a pickle (!!!). But most importantly, there's the technique. Fast food, this ain't. It takes a good few minutes to make a White Manna slider.
fig. d: White Manna magic
The beef is given plenty of time to sizzle, the onions are given time to caramelize, and, over time, the two become one (or darned-near close to it), especially if you were wise enough to order a cheeseburger. And the buns have to be steamed--over the patties (!). So you've got to be a little patient--this is fast food at its slowest. But your patience will be rewarded. And White Manna's sliders are so dainty,** so inexpensive, and so totally addictive that you can easily eat a bunch. I'd say two would be a minimum order. Many patrons order 4, 5, even 6 burgers for themselves.
Let's say I was on vacation in New York City. I'm not sure that I'd rent a car just to scour Northern New Jersey for diners, but that certainly wouldn't be the worst idea--especially since these vestiges of early- to mid-century Americana have been disappearing fast.*** If you're already driving to New York, though, White Manna makes for an easy (and particularly tasty) pit stop. You can find a map here.
Want to watch a video of White Manna's magic in action, or, better yet, make your very own White Manna-style sliders in the comfort of your own home? You can find a video + a recipe here, at Beef Aficionado.
While we've yet to give Nick's sliders recipe a whirl (we're still reeling from our visit to White Manna), we have been making a very similar smashed onion burger for a while based on a recipe that appeared in Saveur. The method comes from Sid's Diner in El Reno, Oklahoma. We've never had the pleasure of visiting Sid's, but their signature burger is another classic example of an early-20th-century/Depression-era burger, one that uses a heap of onions to add flavor and make the beef go a little further. The recipe looks like this:
Sid's Onion Burger
4 tbsp canola oil
1 lb ground beef, gently formed into 6 balls
2 medium yellow onions, very thinly sliced, preferably with a mandoline, and divided into 6 equal portions
kosher salt to taste
6 slices American cheese
6 hamburger buns, toasted
Working in two batches, heat 2 tbsp of the oil in a 12" cast-iron skillet over medium-high heat. When the oil is hot and begins to smoke just slightly add 3 beef balls and, using the back of a spatula, press down on them until they're thin. Cook for 1 minute. Top each patty with a portion of the onions and season with salt. Press the onions into the meat and cook 1 minute more. Flip the burgers; flatten again with the spatula. Place a slice of cheese on each patty and let melt while onions and meat brown (you might want to cover the skillet briefly to speed up the melting of the cheese). Serve on buns. Devour.
As always, we recommend getting the beef (at least 80/20) freshly ground for you by your local butcher, or, better yet, grinding it yourself.
Makes 6 burgers.
[recipe based very, very closely on a recipe that appeared in Saveur #122, September 2009]
Then again, don't you owe yourself a visit to a true burger mecca?
White Manna, 358 River Street, Hackensack, NJ, (201) 342-0914
* Of course, you might also want White Mana, White Manna's Jersey City rival. And you may very well want both.
** Note the size of the burger in relation to the size of the pickle slices. That said, they're only as dainty as a tiny onion burger slathered in melted cheese, ketchup, and hot sauce can be.
fig. e: Little Tavern, Silver Spring, MD
*** A case in point: the Little Tavern chain of hamburger joints, which originated in Louisville, KY, but became a mid-Atlantic institution in the 1930s and 1940s, principally in the Washington-Baltimore metro area (where these green and white cottages were an important part of the cultural landscape of my youth). At one point there were nearly 50 Little Taverns; now they're all gone (although many of the locations live on in other incarnations). They, too, made miniature hamburgers, burgers so small (and so tasty), patrons were encouraged to "buy 'em by the bag" (their tag line). For truly comprehensive coverage of the Little Tavern chain then and now, check out this post from the Diner Hunter blog.