White Man(n)a: A New Jersey Pilgrimage
HACKENSACK and JERSEY CITY, NEW JERSEY
We asked, and you delivered. Oh yes, you delivered, you dear, dear greasy-handed readers. Among your tips on finding good sliders was one that led us to tiny diner White Manna in Hackensack, New Jersey, which in turn led us to the similarly named White Mana (one n, mind you) in Jersey City.
And so this reporter worked all day yesterday as visions of tiny hamburgers danced in his head. Sliders were also doing a jig in the head of Honey P., who works with me. This trip was especially important to Honey P. because her friend has been badgering her for years to try White Manna and HP wanted to get it over with to put an end to the nagging. I was looking forward to her company on the trip, but she had to go to some art thing instead. (Hmmph: Warped priorities if I ever seen 'em.)
Well, she missed out, because White Manna in Hackensack was worth all the hassle I endured getting there. The pilgrimage involved the NYC subway and trips on two different commuter trains in Jersey before I met up with one-time Slice Garden State bureau chief Amanda G. and her dad; their help and generosity was greatly appreciated. We drove from the North Hackensack train stop to White Manna, at the intersection of River and Passaic Streets and were greeted by the cutest down-at-the-heels art deco diner I've seen in ages (see photo above).
Opening the door, we were hit with the unmistakable aroma of onion, and quickly plopped down on stools at the U-shaped counter. We ordered an assortment of hamburgers and cheeseburgerswith onions (unlike White Castle, whose burger stylings White Manna aped in the 1940s, you have the choice of forgoing the pungent topping). We also put in a couple orders of fries with the friendly cooks there (see photo at right).
The burgers start out as small fresh meatballs that the cooks flattenenough but not too muchwith the back of a spatula. They then cover the frying patties with onions and top that with an inverted bun bottom, which is in turn topped with the bun top. The finished burgers are transferred to a paper plate for serving, at which point the cook asks you if you want pickles. If you do, they nestle a handful alongside your sliders for you to distribute among your burgers as you please.
The burgers, of course, are small but don't suffer from the dryness that often plagues tiny hamburgers. They are juicy and flavorful with a touch of sweetness likely imparted by the onions and the soft, moist potato roll they're served on. (White Manna uses Martin's Famous potato rolls, which we're fans of here at AHT.) Ketchup and mustard are available in squeeze bottles distributed throughout the diner. Amanda's dad, Mr. B, noted that these bottles had the perfect tip for squeezing out a neat line of ketchup along the deliciously golden, wide-cut and meaty fries (see photo at top right).
We easily could have called it a day after eating at White Manna, that's how perfect the experience was, but we knew AHT readers wouldn't be satisfied with only half the Man(n)a tale. Though this reporter offered to pay the bill as a thank-you gesture for being driven around the Garden State, Mr. B treated us; AHT is forever in his debt. Amanda and I parted ways with her pops at this point and drove on as a duo to Jersey City.
For those of you who are carless, White Mana is a PITA (pain in the ass) to get to. Even Amanda, who had once lived in The J.C., had a hard time finding it and turned to the aid of her GPS nav unit. But find it we did, and we were jazzed that it had a similar unassuming Jersey-diner look (see photo at right). This is, according to Lost in Jersey, the "original" White Mana. Original, anyway, as in "the first." White Man(n)a initially appeared at the 1939 World's Fair, opened by Louis Bridges. After the fair ended, Mr. Bridges moved the building to Jersey City, where it became so popular that he expanded to several locations in North Jersey, the Hackensack location being one. Both claim to be the "original," and, in a sense, they are, seeing as how they were started by the same man, but, brass tacks, The J.C.'s predates H'sack's.
Amanda and I looked forward to an encore of our H'sack experience, but no dice. In addition to the physical differences in diner structure (the J.C. location boasts a larger, circular counter area and benefits from a large addition built on at a later date), the burgers at the one-'n' Mana are thinner to a fault and very dry. Moreover, they are served on standard-size burger buns that dwarf the patty. What you get is a whole lotta bun and not much fun. We had to eat through a few bites of bread, onion, and ketchup before getting to the thin, thin meat (see photo at left). The sandwich was less a slider and more an anorexic yet better-tasting McDonald's burger.
In our opinion, the Jersey City Mana is not worth the trip unless you live near it. We were taken with the architecture, however, particularly the iconography of the 1939 World's Fair on the exterior and the wagon-wheel-like structure above the grill area (see photo at right).
As Amanda dropped yours truly off at the Hoboken PATH station, I was already planning my next trip to Hackensack. Jersey City, though? I wouldn't be going out of my way for that location any time soon, especially when there's a White Castle only a mile south.
WHITE MANNA (HACKENSACK)
Location: 358 River Street, Hackensack NJ 07601 (at Passaic Street)
Hours: Mon.-Sat., 8:30 a.m. to 9 p.m.; Sun., 10 a.m. to 6 p.m.
Cost: Hamburgers, $0.95; cheeseburgers, $1.05
WHITE MANA (JERSEY CITY)
Location: 470 Tonnele Ave., Jersey City NJ 07307
Cost: Hamburgers, $0.90; cheeseburgers, $0.95
These diners really are a fast-disappearing slice of vintage Americana, and they're quite beautiful in their own quirky way. You really should take a closer look at them.
For outtakes of the trip in Adam K.'s Flickr photostream, click here.
For Amanda G.'s Flickr photostream on the White Man(n)a excursion, go here.