A White Manna / White Mana Pilgrimage Revisited
If it's Tuesday, it must be time for another review from Nick Solares. Nick is also the publisher of Beef Aficionado, his blog that explores beef beyond burgerdom.
As the newest member of the AHT team, I thought it appropriate to follow in Adam's intrepid steps and venture across the Hudson on a pilgrimage to two of America's most historically significant Hamburger establishments. I speak, of course, of White Manna in Hackensack, New Jersey, and White Mana in Jersey City, New Jersey. Adam visited both three years ago to the month, and while he raved about the burgers he ate in Hackensack he was less enthused by the Jersey city location. While I have eaten at both places on previous occasions I did so as a civilian, without the responsibility of reviewing the joints and putting them in to the context of the modern burger landscape.
Both establishments are now operated independently of each other and indeed have different owners but they were both founded by Louis Bridges back in 1946. The story goes that the structure that houses the Jersey City location was originally situated at the 1939 World's Fair and was then moved to its current resting place on Tonnele Avenue.
White Mana opened its doors on June 2, 1946, and has been going ever since; it is open 24 hours a day. The only major change, aside from the fact that the burgers cost a little more than the 10¢ they did back then is that during the 1980s, is that the restaurant lost an n in its name as the result of an error at the sign makers. The missing n was never straightened out, and the reconfigured name stuck.
The diner proved such a success that Bridges open three more Mannas in north Jersey in the 1940s, although now only the original and the Hackensack locations remain.
In reverse order to Adam's trip I started in Jersey City and then went north to Hackensack. While I am in complete agreement that the latter is far superior, I am not sure that I would necessarily countenance against visiting the original location in favor of the White Castle nearby as Adam did. I recommend you visit both!
White Mana, Jersey City
Certainly the historical significance of the J.C. location should make it a destination for any aficionado of burgers and Americana if you are in the area. White Mana's distinctive octagonal building is quite unique and while it is hardly in pristine form, it nonetheless has its own particularly gritty charm.
Entering the establishment does nothing to change this perception; the interior could be charitably referred to as well worn. As is the griddle top that is situated front and center underneath an architecturally interesting beam structure that Adam correctly described as a wagon wheel.
White Mana, unlike its cousin to the north, offers plenty of menu items beyond the burgers, featuring breakfast as well as sandwiches, soups, and other counter fare. But the burgers are the principal draw here, and White Mana reportedly sells more than 3,000 a week.
While the J.C. location prepares its burgers using the same principles as the Hackensack location, the execution, and indeed the final product, are quite different. As I will discuss later, the griddle in Hackensack is a marvel to watch for its utter precision, the J.C. location offers a more bombastic spectacle. The cook flings around the beef and onions with reckless abandon, the metal spatula clinking and clanking like a Benihana chef's knife, amplified by the spired ceiling above. Order onions on your burger and most of them will end up on the glass that covers the griddle. When the burgers are flipped, cheese is added on top and the bun is stacked on top to steam. The whole affair is swiftly removed from the griddle with the flick of the wrist, shuffled to place half of the bun on the bottom, unceremoniously deposited on a crinkled paper plate, pickles slapped on top before being handed to you.
While the burgers here are not quite as small as a typical slider, they are quite thin and frankly the bun they are served on is far too big. As Adam noted, you will be eating through a lot of bread and ketchup if you order a single. I generally prefer singles but here you really do need to get a double, it offers a far better beef-to-bun ratio, at least vertically, a double still does not fill the entire bun. Despite this, the bun is just about the perfect canvas for a burger, being light and spongy. The patty, while certainly not the last word in flavor, has an honest beefy taste, although it is a little too lean. I recommend you get cheese to add some welcome moisture to the proceedings. In the final analysis, the burger here, while certainly not the pinnacle of the art, is far better than fast-food dreck, and the vintage of the restaurant makes it worth visiting.
White Manna, Hackensack
White Manna in Hackensack is a far more classic example of the mid-century hamburger stand. While the Jersey City Mana added a brick extension to its original edifice, the Hackensack Manna remains in its original form; it is as it was when it was manufactured by Paramount in the 1940s.
There is generally a line outside the diminutive building; if you are lucky, your wait will be rewarded by a seat at the U-shape counter whose focal point is the centrally located griddle top.
It is here that the marvel of cheeseburger production unfolds. The cook takes your order without even writing it down and somehow remembers you and your specific request among dozens of burgers.
Balls of beef are placed on a sizzling griddle top, a layer of thinly sliced onions are heaped on top, and the cook then pounds the patty with a spatula until flat. Moments later the burgers are flipped and cheese and a potato roll are stacked on top. Despite the small size of the griddle top, dozens of burgers can be cooked at once and with impressive speed.
While the diced onions at Jersey City Mana mostly make it onto the griddle window, the sliced, stringy onions at Hackensack Manna form a gooey, oozing mass on top of the beef. When they mix with the cheese they add a delicious creaminess to the sandwich, and the crunchy pickles that accompany the burgers add the perfect textural compliment.
The potato roll is the ideal size for the burger, whether you order a single or a double. While I preferred doubles at Mana, I go for singles at Manna. Despite the pounding they receive, the burgers are still plump and juicy, and I find the bun and single patty proportions are spot on. As is everything else. The bread acts as both a sponge for the copious juices from beef, onion, and molten cheese, as well as for the flavor of steamed onions from the griddle top. The sandwich fits perfectly in one hand, it might be compact but the flavor is enormous, biting into it offers an explosion of flavor and texture.
The compliant, airy bun encapsulates the beef in a manner not unlike a Chinese pork bun but obviously with a far more generous meat content. The fresh ground beef itself is succulent and flavorful, aided and abetted by the onions and cheese. I am always hesitant to call anything, especially something as subjective as food, "the best," but I will say that these are my favorite hamburgers.
Both Man(n)as offer a hearty slice of history, but beyond this they embody deeper cultural ideals satisfying both a democratic egalitarianism (Mercedes-Benzs line up next to Chevys in their parking lots) and the attainment of the "American dream" (both restaurants are now owned by first-generation immigrants). In an increasingly homogenized world of strip malls and chain restaurants, it is heartening that places like the Man(n)as still thrive.
Here's to the next 62 years.
White Mana (Jersey City)
470 Tonnele Avenue, Jersey City NJ 07307
Cost: Hamburgers, $1.12; cheeseburgers, $1.22
White Manna (Hackensack)
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, $1.05; cheeseburgers, $1.25
Bonus Video: 'Anatomy of a Masterpiece, The White Manna Cheeseburger'
Link: Anatomy of a Masterpiece [YouTube]