This, believe it or not, is a very serious post. For I do believe that even when discussing irredeemably bad-for-you fast food sliders, it’s still all about food, and taste and history and memory all matter. This comes up because the folks at Serious Food, a website that I regularly visit and enjoy, played up the import to its staff for a tasting this week of huge boxes of imported White Castle sliders. Instantly the controversy of whether White Castles or Krystals were better came to mind.
First, some history. I was raised in Nashville, Tennessee, in a family of 6 kids, and even though my Dad was a physician and doing well enough, feeding a family of 6 was a challenge. When my long-suffering stepmom, usually an excellent cook whose dinners inspire me to this day, had reached her limit, Dad was dispatched on the way home to pick up sackfuls of Krystal sliders for dinner for the kids. My standing order was usually 6 of them, with cheese, and with a side of fries, which back then were deep fried in beef tallow.
Fast forward to the 80s, when White Castle began to make forays into the Nashville market. I remember two of their outlets, one on White Bridge Road near Charlotte Pike and one on Thompson Lane near Nolensville Pike. I tried them both, of course, being curious, and I was sorely disappointed both times: the White Castles were frankly tasteless and had a strange sensation on the chew, almost gummy. When I found out the different prep done on these sliders, I knew why the White Castles were so repulsive to me.
White Castle is originally a product of Wichita, KS though headquartered currently in Columbus, OH. In their usual cooking method, their thin square slider patties are placed on top of onions on a flat grill, then the upper part of their soft white bread bun is placed on top of the patties, meaning that both patty and bun are steamed by the onions. Patty and bun also seem to fuse together in an unpleasantly (to me at least) gelatinous and unappetizing way, creating that gummy mouth feel. A pickle slice is added, but condiments are not, leaving that choice to the consumer (who, if the choice is ketchup rather than mustard, is always choosing wrongly).
Krystal sliders are different, perhaps because they are improvements over the original White Castle (WC for short) concept. The founders of Krystal from Chattanooga, TN (corporate HQ is now in Atlanta) studied the White Castle iteration before they launched their own in the 1930s, approximately a decade or so after WC’s founding in Kansas. At Krystal, the patties are grilled first, then flipped onto grilling onions, then white bread bun tops are applied. This means that the bun meets a grilled patty surface, and does not fuse in that gummy yucky way I didn’t like at WC. All the same, the thin square beef patty and fluffy white bread bun get a steam treatment from the grilling onions and a wonderful infusion of grilled onion flavor. Sliders get a pickle slice, and also (crucially I may add) a squirt of all-American yellow mustard, no questions asked.
Compare this Chattanooga variant on the original slider from Wichita, to the very dangerous burger available to this very day from the estimable and coronary crisis-inducing Dyer’s Burgers on Beale St a few hundred miles away from ‘Nooga, in Memphis. (Both are in Tennessee, and do remember that Tennessee is a very long state. There is more mileage driving from Tri Cities in northeast Tennessee to Memphis in the state’s extreme southwest than there is driving from Nashville to Canada.) At Dyer’s in Memphis, burger patties are not grilled: they are wickedly and quite tastily deep fried in hot oil in a cast iron skillet, the oil supposedly not having been changed (though filtered every night after closing and replenished) since the place’s founding over 100 years ago. Their heart-clogging and delectable burgers are served on Sunbeam white bread buns, precisely with raw onion, pickle slice - and mustard. That’s it, and except for the grilling of their patties and for the filip of grilling onions and steaming patties and buns over that onion-y grillade, Krystal’s presentation is in the same groove. This MO of mustard-onion-pickle on a burger has been speaking to those of Mid South origins for more than 100 years.
This is why I fly on Delta, and I usually schedule my connections through Atlanta, so that I can choose for stopover eats between the epicurean and bibulous adventure at the acclaimed resto/bar One Flew South in Terminal E, or the connection with my family and with my people’s palate via the Krystal outlet in Terminal A for a sackful of cheese sliders. I have been known to have brought such a sackful onto a Delta flight in First Class, thereby proclaiming my simple Southern roots to those First Class-seated movers and shakers seated therein, and relishing it thoroughly. (I would have said “redneck” re my family roots with some validity, but Krystal does transcend all societal boundaries in the South, thankfully.)
My take on why Krystal will always be better than White Castle! QED.