Forward to the Past: New Sliders from White Diamond in New Jersey and Mark in NYC

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[Photographs: Nick Solares]

I love sliders. And by that I mean small griddle steamed hamburgers made of 100 percent beef served on white squishy buns or potato rolls, not a burger or sandwich that happens to be small.

The term has been devalued as of late, with "sliders" incorporating everything from seafood, pork, and even vegetables. (Just last week I ate a "slider" from the Kogi Truck in Los Angeles that consisted of morsels of short rib in a kimchi/cabbage melange served on a potato roll—no patty anywhere in sight.) I have devoted much space in this column to reporting on the declining state of sliders in New Jersey, where a handful of vintage slider emporiums continue to ply their trade, unaware of the fact that they are hopeless anachronisms.

Surely the slider, despite the adoption of the name to describe almost any small food thing in a bun, is so antiquated that no one would open a new slider restaurant in this day and age. Don't the economies of scale make selling sliders not economically viable compared to larger burgers? Well, I am happy to report that that is not the case.

Last week I brought word of a new White Diamond in Rahway, New Jersey. This week I paid them a visit, as well as tried the newly opened Mark that is serving sliders right here in New York City.

White Diamond

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White Diamond

745 East Hazelwood Avenue, Rahway NJ 07065; map); 732-388-1860
Cooking Method: Steam griddled
Short Order: Classic sliders from the owners of the original White Diamond.
Want Fries with That? Sure, salty crinkle cut.
Price: Hamburger, $1.30; cheeseburger, $1.40; fries, $2.25
Notes: Open Mon. to Sat., 6 a.m - 8 pm.; Sun., 7 a.m. - 2 p.m.

White Diamond in Rahway is wholly owned by the Tammy and Kevin Collins, who are also part owners of the original White Diamond of Clark that dates back to 1947. The Collins family has been in the hamburger business for almost four decades. That's a lot of burger knowledge, and it is used to good effect at their latest venture.

The burgers served at the Rahway location are every bit as good as the ones at the original location—perhaps even be better. The ingredients are all from the same purveyors that supply the original location. The fresh, never frozen, beef is delivered daily, as is the bread. And the cooking technique is identical: small pucks of beef are placed on the griddle and then pressed until completely flat; onions are added, the burger is flipped, and cheese and the bun are laid on top.

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The result is a burger that is supremely soft, puffy, airy and gooey. Texturally, the ingredients all become so soft that they are virtually indistinguishable from each other. The flavors meld together—tangy cheese, sweet onion, and hearty, salty beef, all held snuggly by a bun that is perfumed with the aromas of the other ingredients.

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The technique employed at White Diamond has stood the test of time and has, over the last half-century, been perfected. The basic ingredients—fresh ground chuck, American cheese, onions, and white buns—can be substituted with pricier ingredients cooked on a fancy grill, but the result won't be any better. They might even be worse, something I discovered at Mark.

Mark

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Mark

33 St. Marks Place, New York NY 10003 (b/n 2nd and 3rd Aves; map); 212-677-3132; stmarksburger.com
Cooking Method: Griddle-steamed
Short Order: Potentially great sliders let down by the cooking method.
Want Fries with That? You won't want the burgers, but the fries aren't bad.
Price: Cheeseburger, $2; Bacon Sliders, $2.75

I was delighted to hear about the opening of Mark, a new bar and burger joint that specializes in sliders on St. Marks place in the East Village. While you can probably find all types of burgers described as sliders on menus all over the neighborhood, there has not been an earnest attempt at making a true slider in the East Village since Sassy's Sliders packed up and moved uptown in the late 1990s (Sassy's moved up to 86th Street, but closed last year). For that, I applaud Mark.

As well as for using quality produce, the beef—a chuck, sirloin, and short rib mix—is ground on premises, and the thick shakes and thin fries all use fresh ingredients. Mark also uses the traditional slider cooking method described above in preparing their burgers. Like the venerable White Manna in Hackensack, New Jersey, Mark has adopted the potato as the vessel for their patty. Potato rolls are my second favorite burger bread, after the generic white buns used at White Diamond.

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Unfortunately, despite the adherence to the established method of preparation and the use of mostly traditional ingredients, the sliders at Mark are a big let down, and I suspect that the blame lies with the griddle. Unlike the slider restaurants that use hokey, old battered griddles (even the new generic griddle at the two-week-old White Diamond already looks much older), Mark invested in a brand spanking new Miraclean.

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This gleaming, chrome behemoth is remarkable because it is incredibly efficient—even when set to 500°F one can comfortably hold ones hand inches above the cooking surface without discomfort. This results in a cool kitchen and a cooking surface that is very even in its heat distribution. Unfortunately, it is not ideal for making sliders, which required more than just direct heat to cook correctly. A regular, less efficient griddle generates a pocket of heat several inches above its cooking surface. This dissipated heat is essential in getting the cheese, bun, and onions to cook correctly on a slider. At Mark, because of the efficiency of the cooking surface, it seems that the only heat is the direct heat from the surface, which means that in order for the cheese to melt and the bun to steam the beef itself has to cook all the way through, and beyond.

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The result in my experience at Mark has been dried out beef, unevenly cooked onions, and tepid buns. Speaking of the onions, they are far too thick—slider onions must be finely diced or sliced in to thin ribbons to cook correctly. The coarsely sliced onions at Mark don't cook all the way except the thinner ends, which can get charred.

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There are other problems as well. The burgers were far too salty, except the bacon slider (the bacon is actually incorporated in the patty), which was not salty or "bacony" at all. Also, I think the beef blend is completely unnecessary—a slider really only needs fresh chuck to work. Once pressed and doused in onion juice and topped with molten cheese, a slider derives its juiciness from a variety of sources beyond the beef itself.

I can't argue with the price however. At $2 per slider (with cheese), the burgers might be expensive compared to the $1.40 that White Diamond charges, but for NYC it is a real bargain. At least it would be if the burger was better.

I was disappointed by Mark, especially because I am such a fan of the slider. I wanted to like the place—the garish decor aside—but the execution leaves much to be desired. I am not sure that the problem of the griddle can be surmounted without replacing it altogether, although perhaps a metal dome can be placed over the burger to aid in the steaming process, à la Paul's Da Burger Joint. Or perhaps a change in style is in order. The Miraclean griddle is used to good effect at Bill's and the uptown Shake Shack; I just don't think it can ever properly work for sliders.

Mark does not compare favorably to the classic slider joints that inspired it. On the other hand, the new White Diamond, despite its recent opening, represents, by virtue of both its pedigree and the execution of its hamburger, one of the highest expressions of the slider.

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