There's something about White Castle that always made it seem more special than other fast food chains. For me, the diminutive size of the burgers, along with their relative scarcity in my residence of New York City (White Castle is family-owned and not a franchise) are both part of the White Castle mystique. The Serious Eats office is only located about 10 blocks away from one (granted, the only one in Manhattan below 100th Street)—but it's certainly not as commonplace as burger mega-chains McDonald's, Burger King, and Wendy's.
Why else am I drawn to White Castle? Aside from having watched Harold & Kumar Go to White Castle, I have two distinct and vivid White Castle-related memories that I have carried with me since childhood. One was getting a twinge of excitement when my family would pass one on the highway while growing up in Northern New Jersey—although I couldn't tell you why. Maybe the "castle" part appealed to my childlike sensibilities because it reminded me of Disneyland.
The other was, when eating lunch at school, unpacking those re-heated frozen White Castle sliders you could get from the supermarket and thinking they tasted like ass, or whatever equivalent vocabulary my six-year-old mind came up with (maybe just, "Eeeuhg, why did my mom give me this? Isn't she supposed to love me?"). I'm 99 percent sure that at some point in my childhood my family did actually eat at a White Castle, but unfortunately the only thing I remember is the frozen version.
Fast forward more than 15 years. I couldn't tell you what a White Castle burger tastes like, which felt somewhat wrong considering I write for a burger blog and White Castle is the oldest burger chain in the US. So, accompanied by intrepid Serious Eats intern Grace Kang, last week I set out to get my first post-childhood taste of White Castle and document the experience for posterity on AHT.
One late night last month, I tried to visit a White Castle in Brooklyn, but had no luck since even though it was open 24 hours, only the drive-thru was open at the time I went. The 8th Avenue location is open 24 hours and there is no drive-thru. Score! ...Maybe. I wouldn't say you really score anything if you're wandering around that area at 3 a.m. with the munchies.
Grace and I split two hamburgers, two cheeseburgers, two fish burgers with cheese, one BBQ pulled pork slider, one order of chicken rings, and one order of fries. Even though we are gluttons, keep in mind that their sandwiches, or "slyders," are itty-bitty. Here's how it all tasted to our White Castle-virgin taste buds.
Hamburger ($0.69): Square sliver of meat, onions, pickles, and ketchup in a soft, steamed bun. You can't really go wrong with four kinds of savory goodness—mostly mushy, savory goodness—slapped together in a dainty bun. For 69 cents, it makes for a satisfying snack; not the pinnacle of burger greatness, but that's not what you were expecting anyway. Although I may not love this little burger, I can see its appeal.
Cheeseburger ($0.84): Same as above, but with a coating of melted processed cheese product. I liked it better with cheese so instead of just "mush," there was also an element of "salty goo."
Fish Burger with Cheese ($1.39): This was my favorite sandwich of the bunch, but I should note that I have a penchant for the fish-cheese-tartar sauce combination, in particular in McDonald's Filet-O-Fish. While this isn't better than a Filet-O-Fish, it's smaller and thus cheaper. That might be all the fried fish sandwich action you want.
BBQ Pulled Pork Slider ($0.48): Looks like fail, tastes like...not so good. It's way too sweet in a way that reminded Grace and me of Chinese-style roast pork, but not quite, because then it would've tasted better.
Chicken Rings (6 for $2.39): So tasteless, it could be tofu. I was hoping for a crispier coating à la McDonald's McNuggets, but the breading isn't crispy. Maybe we got a defective batch.
Fries (regular size, $1.49): Nothing special, but totally satisfied my desire for crispy potato sticks.
After just eating two of the burgers, I couldn't imagine comfortably eating more than that—by that point I was already tired of the flavor. But it was good while it lasted and I'm glad that White Castle serves their sandwiches in tiny portion sizes. Their drinks are another matter—the small cup looked like an extra large, and when Grace mentioned this to the cashier she replied, "You're the first person to say that."
I suspect that I will go back to White Castle someday, but it has yet to hold a special place in my heart aside from "the place my friends and I almost ate at late one night but couldn't because we didn't have a car." I know that there are lots of White Castle fans out there—if any of you have an awesome White Castle story to share, please do!