By John Carruthers
While the general assumption is that people who write about food eat only Michelin-starred, locally-sourced, pretentiously-plated meals, the real truth is that we eat the same as you. Worse, even. Heirloom tomato salad one minute, two handfuls of melted queso and chips a few hours later. Gotta keep that endocrine system guessing. Everyone has a vice (usually more than one), and the people who say they don’t are either lying, unbearable, or both.
For me, it’s White Castle. As a kid, we didn’t go out for fast food much. It wasn’t a healthy eating thing so much as the idea that taking four kids under 12 to McDonald’s was (and probably still is) a fate worse than death for my mom. But every time we went to the dentist, if we remained cavity-free, we’d get free reign to gorge at the White Castle on Harlem and Belmont. God I loved that. I never had a cavity.
Now I’m 32, I still go to the same dentist, and the White Castle still stands watch over Harlem. My wife Emily has made peace with this ritual, and even offered a second set of taste buds uncolored by nostalgia. So let’s eat some White Castle.
(This probably doesn’t need to be said, but I have no professional or compensated relationship with White Castle aside from my history of eating their cheeseburgers and burping onions for hours afterward. This is just for fun, because people who write about food have weird ideas of “fun.”)
Cheese Curd Nibblers
I travel to the dentist twice a year, regular as clockwork, because I grew up with people who didn’t and as such have seen the devastating effects of YuckMouth firsthand. And one of my personal mandates for my semiannual White Castle Gavage is to try whatever limited-time item is on offer. Sometimes it works (Pizza Slider, I miss you), sometimes it backfires (rot in Hell, Thanksgiving Slider). But the important thing is to try and live life to its fullest. I took all the wrong lessons from the motivational speakers my high school brought in.
The curds were surprisingly respectable. Standard orange cheddar with a little squeak and minimal leakage. The batter is the weak point – entirely uniform and bland, rather than the ideal crispy beer batter. But since they were poured out of a bag by a tired-looking fry cook who brought apathy to new and exciting realms of art, this is probably the best result possible under the circumstances. I wish I’d thought to ask for a dipping sauce, but that’s on me. Gotta be bold.
Emily’s reaction: “I don’t like them. But most of the time I hate fried cheese curds.” Tough but fair.
Chicken and Waffles Slider
Back in my college days in the Southeast, chicken and waffles was a regional delicacy people swore by. Eventually, it made its way to the more forward-thinking cooks and restaurants nationwide. Now it’s a half-assed fast food imitation that no one cares about. This happens with literally every regional dish at some point. This entire life cycle took less than a year with Nashville Hot Chicken.
But what of the Chicken and Waffle Slider? The waffles were soggy, the chicken was soggy, and I’m fairly certain the taste of the gravy came from a giant lab vat labeled “Breakfast(?)” The one plus was the bacon bits, which appeared to have been actual chopped cooked bacon. I could have forgiven almost everything else about the slider, but those waffles, man. Swing and a miss, WC.
Emily’s reaction: (puzzled face) “Shouldn’t these waffles be crispier?” Yes, yes they should be.
Classic Slider With Cheese (x4)
The one that started it all. Beef, onions, and pickle on a steamed bun – friend to the working man, hangover’s bane. You probably dismiss them as a second- (or third-) rate fast food chain, but White Castle had a big hand in changing America’s attitude toward both ground beef and fast food. These are the things you learn when you develop a deep emotional connection to a place over a lifetime of dental hygiene.
In contrast to certain items on the menu (COUGHCOUGHCHICKENWAFFLECOUGH), this one may be impossible to screw up with functioning griddles at a standard White Castle. The 100-burger Crave Case deal sometimes beckons to me like an evil Djinn.
Emily’s Reaction: (Contented eating). This made me so happy.
Jalapeno Cheese Slider (x4)
If you offered me a lifetime Six Flags-style pass to Alinea, but the condition was that I could lose the ability to enjoy a White Castle jalapeno cheese, I probably wouldn’t take it. First of all, that’s some Little Mermaid shit. Second of all, this is a bite of food that I contend ranks among the best hamburger bites one can have. Spicy cheese, steamed bun, straight umami onion braced by some salty “cheese” cheese. You’ve got to buy a lot of mustache wax and listen to a lot of obscure indie rock to disavow that combination of earthly pleasures.
I’ve been to really expensive places in the city that made me wish for a White Castle Jalapeno Cheese Slider. And since I’m a classy guy, I won’t mention Naha by name.
Won’t mention their farty, pretentious service and overthought, underseasoned food at all in conjunction with a 79 cent burger I find far superior to anything they served me over three disappointing visits.
No sir, won’t do it.
I love you, Jalapeno Cheese Slider. Also, oops.
Emily’s reaction: “You told me this was a regular cheeseburger. I was eating it thinking that the beef was spiced really strangely, or that the meat went rancid.” Oops again.
GRAPE POP! I don’t know what to say. You know what it is. You don’t like grape pop? You better than me or something?
I’m sure there’s a person out there somewhere telling his friends he saw some jackass taking pictures of his grape pop at White Castle. I hope he remembers me for the rest of his life.
Emily’s reaction: “Huh.”
Always the wild card. I dig the crinkle-cut (I almost prefer them to the half-hearted skin-on hand-cut fries that litter our great city with their enthusiastic mediocrity), but they’ve gotta be crisp and salty, not pale and potato-forward. I’ve had them both ways from this particular White Castle, because consistency in foodservice can only go so far before it runs into the brick wall of indifference.
And honestly, I get that. Sometimes you just can’t buy in at a certain pay grade – especially if you’re gonna deal with lunatics and maniacs on the daily. I’ve worked shitty jobs I hated, and I’d like to apologize to anyone who visited the McHenry Jewel-Osco during my high school years or who read a certain medical trade mag in the spring of 2014.
But these fries were the “The Practice of Dermatology in Mexico” of potatoes. Salt those things, man.
Emily’s reaction: “These need to be saltier.”
My wife bought that Honda Civic when she was 16. We are both twice that old now. That’s a damn impressive car! It’s also a pretty good eatin’ car – I prefer my Tacoma, but one must adapt. When you find an eatin’ car you like, treasure it and hang on to it for as long as you can.
(Again, I have no professional or compensated relationship with the 1997 Honda Civic.)
Also – there are some legitimately enjoyable bites at the White Castle, but I can only speak for the Harlem and Belmont location, and only twice a year. Tread lightly on the seasonal offerings if you’re not feeling bold.
But at the same time, don’t be the kind of eater who only goes to critically acclaimed places 4 months after they have a buzz. Spend some time in the mud with the rest of us. It’s pretty tasty down here.
1. Jalapeno Cheese Slider
2. Classic Cheese Slider
3. Cheese Curd Nibblers
4. Grape Pop
6. Chicken and Waffle Slider
7. Dermatology in Mexico
8. The Dawson
9. Wait, I meant a restaurant I wouldn’t name
10. Good save, Carruthers – smooooooth