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[Photographs: Nick Solares]

In my recent Guide To Sliders in Northern New Jersey I listed two restaurants that I believed to still serve the genuine article but had not been able to try, though not through a lack of effort on my part. I had visited both on a number of occasions as I hunted sliders in Jersey, but always arrived too late; they both close in mid afternoon. I finally made it to both.

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Fern's White Diamond

Fern's White Diamond

1208 1/2 E Grand Street, Elizabeth NJ 07201 (map); 908-352-8555
Cooking Method: Steamed griddled
Short Order: Classic preparation does not help the stale beef
Want Fries with That?Not especially. Serviceable though frozen
Price: Two hamburgers and fries, $4.95

Fern's started life as a general store called Cosmo's back in the 1960s. It reportedly sold sandwiches and groceries and later added a lunch counter. In 1980 it became part of the White Diamond chain, adding a griddle to the kitchen and hamburgers to the menu. The restaurant eventually doubled in size, taking over the adjacent store. Today the restaurant is called Fern's White Diamond and is a diner with burgers only being a small part of a broader menu.

The good news is that the burgers are prepared in the classic griddle-steamed method—the patty is mashed down on the griddle with onions, then the cheese and bun top it when it is flipped. The bad news it that when I visited the beef was hardly fresh. It looked brown even before hitting the griddle—oxidization had set in—and tasted muted and stale. I had but one bite before stuffing a napkin over it and the equally unappetizing fries, paying by bill, and beating a hasty retreat.

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Perhaps if the beef had been fresh I might have noticed the white bun, coarsely chopped onions, and melted American, and reveled in the nostalgia of it all, looking at the world through griddle steamed glasses. But without the basic fulfillment of the unwritten but understood contractual obligation of the slider—that it uses fresh, clean beef—the hamburger here is a flop. The whole reason White Castle placed the griddle front and center, in plain view, when they invented the modern hamburger was to show that the consumer had nothing to fear and the beef was safe and fresh. Serving beef that is as oxidized as the burger that I had at Vern's "defeats the whole purpose," to quote Robert DeNiro as Jake Lamota in Raging Bull

Better Burger

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Better Burger

1601 W Blancke Street, Linden NJ 07036 (map); 908-862-6128
Cooking Method: Griddle
Short Order: Too many corners are cut in this potentially decent burger
Want Fries with That? Adequate but frozen
Price: Cheeseburger, $1.30; double, $2.60

Freshness of beef was not a problem at Better Burger in Linden, New Jersey. The familiar pucks of pink beef from Jaszt Butcher in nearby Roselle—also used by White Rose and White Diamond of Linden—graced the griddle at this rather tattered diner in a sleepy part of Linden. Better Burger was once a White Diamond before fracturing from the mini chain and changing its name in the early 1990s. The current owners are deeply secretive and suspicious, not to mention the fact that they barely speak English and I speak nothing else.

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They did let me take some pictures of the griddle, but I think it was in response to me being so annoying and pestering them with questions about hamburgers.

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The beef might have been fresh, but any vibrancy and juiciness it might have had was left on the griddle as the cook pressed down on the patty with all his might, losing all the juice and resulting in a patty cooked so thoroughly that it was essentially all crust. Something was lost in translation when the new owners took over. The traditional method of cooking sliders is speedy, but the patties are allowed to cook on the griddle unmolested after an initial pressing while the buns are steamed on top. At Better Burger the process is certainly faster, but the result far worse. The burger cooks quickly, but only because it is paper thin by the time it has been mashed down repeatedly. The bun does not get steamed and the result is less than appetizing.

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I refer to the owners as "new" in that they are not the original owners, but it turns out that they have owned the place for 15 years. I can't imagine that anybody would buy burgers here more than once, and it doesn't seem the type of place with much drive by business. Better Burger has surely seen better days, but apparently they serve enough burgers that the beef is fresh, although fast food joints offer juicier burgers, if you can imagine. The freshness of the beef is the only thing that is "better" here than at a national chain or another substandard slider joint, like Fern's White Diamond.

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