Wednesday, December 12, 2007

Burgers at the Center of the Known World

While Hungary struggles with its own Burger Wars, here in New Jersey we have been taking Fumie to sample some of the Garden State's finest ground beef wonders. Europeans take note: We do not eat in McDonald's here. Ever. Really. Burgers in New Jersey are a way of life, a goal in itself, nirvana on a bun with onions, and we don't suffer changes easily. The granddaddy of the old style Jersey slider is White Manna on River Road in Hackensack.White Manna is an old Burger hut that began as a snack stand at the 1938 New York World's Fair and was was moved to the banks of the Hackensack River afterwards. It hasn't had any redesign since.White Manna's burgers are tiny... a surviving adaption from the Great Depression of the 1930s when a very small amount of meat would be grilled or steamed on top of a huge mound of onions in order to produce an affordably cheap burger sandwich. The only other places that makes Depression-era burgers like this that I know of are in Oklahoma and Kansas.The grill cooks in this tiny joint have the drill down to an art form. Take order. Slap tiny meat patty onto grill, toss onions on top, squash together, and wait. This is actually very slow food, and there is always a crowd at lunch. The burgers are still cheap, at $1 for a regular, and usually one orders at least two or three. While we were there once guy ordered eight of them, while his wife ordered only four.The 1930s also gave birth to the first fast food chain in America, the White Castle Hamburger. White Castles poppped up in working class neighborhoods all over the east coast and midwest, and even topday the company does not open franchises in high-income neighborhoods or toney shopping malls.At 50 cents a burger, that is not their target consumer profile. This one is located on Rte. 46 in Hasbrook Heights, NJ, an ugly bit of roadway where you might venture to get a new muffler for your car. Ordered a dozen burgers for three of us - I like their newfangled Jalapeno-Cheese burgers, which my dad thinks is sacriligeous to the Holy White Castle Mythos ("There are Burgers and Cheeseburgers. Nothing else!")There is something about the cheap meat combination - bits of innards for flavor? Mushy steamed bun? - and the steaming process that gives White Castles a flavor that is every bit as evocative as the madeleines that Proust bit into. These are worth every penny - and it is pennies we are talking about here - and anybody who watched the excorably bad Harold and Kumar Go to White Castle knows exactly why it was worth making a trip to a Jersey White Castle into a full length film.Then there is the famous Jersey Diner Burger. My folks decided that they had to try a new Mega-Diner at the Garden State Mall... the Grande Lux Cafe.This is a shining example of Garden State Grandiousity - it ain't worth building unless it is so huge that the word "tasteless" becomes meaningless. When we first moved to New Jersey in 1966 our first meal was at the old Forum Diner on Rte. Four, a classic Greek-owned highway eatery that remained legendary in Bergen County until it closed last year. Now my folks are entirely pleased to take their custom to the Grande Lux.For a Disney-sized mega-bistro in a mall, it wasn't half bad. The Angus beef burger with jalapeno jack cheese passed muster, comparing favorably to the White Castle Jalapeno-Cheese burger at only 17 times the price.Of course, for only $6.95 we don't need to go farther than to Louie's Charcoal Pit on Cedar lane in Teaneck, where the Burgers of my High School days still reign supreme. Truthfully, neither myself or my brother Ron have any clear memory of eating these - we both spent the 1970s pretty high, especially when we wound up at Louie's - but one bite is enough to bring back those lost Ur-Burger flavors.Fumie has been getting nostalgic for Japanese style hamburger and rice plates. Fortunately, the Mitsuwa Marketplace is just down the road in Edgewater, New Jersey, a mere bus ride from the end of my street. We have been using Mitsuwa as our daily pathway into New York City - bus from Teaneck to Mitsuwa, unimaginably cheap good Japanese lunches at their food court, and then taking their hourly shuttle bus into New York's Bus terminal at 42nd St. Having worked our way through ramen, soba noodles, and tempura don, it's almost time to hit the Japanese burger joint...

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