7216 West Fort Street, Detroit MI 48209 (map); 313-843-9186
Cooking Method: Griddled
Short Order: One of the oldest constantly operating slider joints in the country, the quality of its burgers live up to their legacy.
Want Fries with That? Their fries are fine, but I'd rather save the space for more burgers.
Prices: Sliders, $1.50
Notes: Wash them down with a can of the Vernors Ginger Ale, the oldest soft drink in America.
Originally founded as a White Castle in 1929, Motz's Burgers in Detroit may not be the oldest continuously operating burger joint in the world—that distinction still goes to Louis' Lunch in New Haven, which has been serving burgers since 1900—but Motz's Burgers best Louis' in one significant way: they actually taste good. Really good. As in, in the running for the best sliders I've had anywhere.
If you are to believe the kind and friendly lady slinging the burgers (and why wouldn't you?), the original White Castle was bought out some time in the 1930s by the Motts family, of apple sauce fame. Eventually, when the joint was sold again a few decades later, rather than changing the name, the new owner simply changed the spelling in order to avoid legal entanglements.
Located on the long lonely strip of West Fort street near a decrepit shipping warehouse in the West Side Industrial district of Detroit, it feels about as working-class classic as you can get. The white turrets that were the hallmark of the White Castle architectural style are still standing, though the grimy tiling is more than a little worse for wear. The interior features a half dozen round stools arranged along a clean, stainless steel countertop, behind which sits a well-seasoned griddle.
The burgers are cooked in classic slider style. They are made from a combination of round and sirloin ground fresh every morning and hand-formed into roughly 1 1/2-ounce balls. When you order your slider, the cook smashes a well-seasoned beef ball flat onto the griddle before topping it with a handful of thinly sliced onions and pressing it down even further. A minute later, the whole thing is flipped so that the onions are pressed against the griddle and the whole thing is topped with a slice of cheese. Meanwhile, the bun gets very lightly toasted against the burnt-onion-strewn griddle then placed directly on top of the cooking patty to steam. A squirt of mustard and ketchup and a couple pickle slices, and lunch is served.
Despite their diminutive nature, the burgers pack a powerful flavor punch. As with all great sliders, the onions share equal billing with the beef, adding sweetness to the beefs salty savory bite. Gooey melted American cheese ties the whole thing together, with meat, onions, and cheese melting together with the soft bun.
If you watch carefully, you'll notice that although the cook carefully scrapes any leftover onions off of the griddle before laying down a new batch of beef, she does so only superficially—at any given moment, there's a significant amount of charred onion and caramelized onion juice forming a patina over the surface of the hot griddle. This is not laziness—indeed, it's the key to the great burgers. When the beef is placed on the griddle, all of the flavor from hundreds of burgers past work their way into the meat, lending it a complex sweet savory flavor. And that's why it's nearly impossible to produce a slider this good at home, no matter how good your starting ingredients.
If there's one complaint to be made here, it's that the buns don't get sufficiently steamed to soften into submission—the very top and bottom of both of my burgers (you'll need at least two) were barely heated through, and certainly not moist. My guess is that because I got there during a slow time, my two lonely burgers didn't have the benefit of close cooking proximity to other burgers, which would help trap and concentrate the steam. Getting the burgers wrapped in wax paper to go might have also solved this minor problem.
There are larger burgers, as well as veggie and salmon burgers on the menu along with pretty decent fries and onion rings. But honestly, why would you order anything else?
Ok, perhaps an ice cold can of Vernors Ginger Ale is an acceptable accompaniment.