Over the last few years, the hype surrounding hamburgers has become incessant and intolerable. I say this with some remorse, because I, as a food blogger, had something to do with it. The elevation, however well-earned, of New York/New Jersey meat purveyor Pat LaFrieda to the status of celebrity butcher; the notoriety of the $26 Black Label burger at New York’s Minetta Tavern; the constant stream of idolatry and invective surrounding new, bigger and better burgers—Five Napkin Burgers and Shake Shack Burgers and Smashburgers and Michelin-starred Spotted Pig burgers with Roquefort on top—has come to seem a little daunting, even to me. The hamburger was invented and popularized in the 1920s, a small, no-frills food object—a smear of brown beef and onions on a bun, grabbed on the go by urban factory workers. They cost a dime. Today’s hamburger has grown immense and extravagant, and New York City has become its decadent capital. Amid this inflation, one day I got a call from “English” Nick Solares, a fellow hamburger journalist.
“I have discovered the most perfect hamburger in the world, mate,” he told me. “And it’s in New Jersey.”
English Nick had found a tiny, ancient, isolated bur-ger joint on a little-used back road in Linden. It was called White Diamond, and it sold small hamburgers—sliders—and little else. It had a dozen stools, and an elderly man patiently cooked onions and beef on a weathered griddle of black cast iron. It had a long linoleum counter with no customers, and the hamburgers were among the best I ever ate.
Each burger was unutterably moist and tender, and nestled inside a soft, semi-steamed white bun like the cream center of a cupcake. They were oniony, and the thin piece of yellow American cheese melted into the beef so that you couldn’t tell where one ended and the other began. “I been doing this for 35 years,” the man told us. “I cook hamburgers the same way all this time.” I had found a hamburger historian’s nirvana: a time machine into the sandwich’s proletarian past. The place had been selling hamburgers for over 70 years when I got there.
White Diamond closed one week later. It had been living on borrowed time for years, forgotten and unloved. I caught the last moments of its long life. I felt sad—but fortunate.
The loss of my hamburger Eden hit me hard, but like Hugh Conway in Lost Horizon, I was determined to claw my way back to Shangri-La. It turned out there was a whole cluster of these ancient hamburger shacks, living fossils that recalled another America—one that served better burgers. There were White Rose System and White Diamond and White Manna with two Ns and White Mana with one, all of which were obviously strands of mutant DNA traceable to White Castle, the first hamburger chain in American history and their oldest common ancestor.
But it is even more complicated than that. The restaurants, which all look more or less alike, are chromed pillboxes set in narrow lots on commercial roads, mostly in Union and Essex counties. They are all independently owned, having broken free, like so many post-Soviet republics, to make their own way in troubled times. They are still ridiculously cheap, they still feed working people, and they are completely (or almost completely) uncorrupted by changing times.
It gets confusing. There is White Rose Diner of Highland Park and White Rose of Linden (not to be mistaken for the dear departed White Diamond of Linden.) There is White Rose of Roselle, which isn’t quite as good. There is White Diamond of Clark, which is very good, and White Diamond of Rahway, which is equally good, and Fern’s White Diamond, of Elizabeth, which isn’t. There’s also Better Burger of Linden, which is different from either White Rose or White Diamond, except for its hamburger, which is exactly the same. Most confusing of all is the diptych of White Manna of Hackensack and White Mana of Jersey City, twins long separated but with a common parent and a single missing letter.
These burgers all have a few things in common. The ground beef comes fresh, invariably from a local butcher, formed into little 1.5-ounce clumps, each about the size of a golf ball. Unlike the frozen meat-chips used at White Castle these days, these little packages of fresh hamburger are soft and supple, and, though not much more than a heaping tablespoon of beef, they are visibly juicy, with a high fat content that self-lubricates when they hit the griddle. The cook uses the underside of a heavy spatula to press the burger flat with a practiced, unhurried ease, causing the meat to emit an appetizing sizzle. Some finely cut onions are strewn atop the sizzling beef, releasing their steam and their sweat into the cooking meat. The onions cook themselves after the patties are flipped. Then the patties are covered with a softened slice of tangerine-colored American cheese. The cheese keeps the steam from escaping and makes a sweat lodge for the onions, binding all the flavors together.
While the whole finishes cooking, both halves of an infant-sized, pillowy Wonder-style bun sit nearby, and are laid atop the patty, absorbing steam and meat flavor. The cook puts a spatula under the burger, flips it onto the bun, and tops it with the warmed other half: a minor masterpiece.
The burger comes to you on a plate that can either be plastic or paper, depending on which of these burger nirvanas you patronize. There may be a little bit of ketchup. One or two slices of pickle might adorn the plate; for the most part, they stay there, a purely decorative touch. Everything the burger needs is contained between its buns. It might be said that everything needed for human happiness is, too.
English Nick was sent into raptures when he saw these small burgers. Exposed as he is to the baroque, gigantistic theater of hamburgerdom in New York, this throwback simplicity brought out the puritan in him. “You know what this is, mate?” he asked me. “No, what?” I replied, thinking it might be a trick question. “American Zen!” he announced. “It has a kind of…sacred simplicity.” Nick was so moved that he wrote a posthumous tribute to White Diamond of Linden on A Hamburger Today, his hamburger blog, calling the burgers “a classic taste in equally classic surroundings.” But that’s true of all the White burgers.
To take one instance: Rich Belfer, 47, of Manalapan, owns White Rose of Linden. His father, Shelly, spent his life in the business, operating luncheonettes in Newark, Clark, Union and Fords over the years. In 1991, Shelly bought White Rose of Linden from Jack Hemmings, who, along with his brother Bob and their cousin Jim, started the White Rose System in New Jersey in 1958, copying it directly from White Castle.
The Belfers sold hamburgers to workers at the GM plant and local tool-and-die factories in Linden, some of which were still so busy that they had second shifts. In this, they followed the model of White Castle, which invented the hamburger for all intents and purposes in 1921. White Castle (still a family-run company) never allowed its operators to franchise restaurants, preferring to keep them on the payroll, where they could control them.
But you can’t contain the dreams of the men who make hamburgers any more than you can contain the ardor of Americans for eating them. So men like the Hemmingses learned and then went off to start their own places with nearly identical names and building styles: White Tower, Royal Castle, Blue Castle, White Diamond, White Manna. Even the people who live in the area get mixed up. “I’ve been called White Diamond more times than I know,” says Rich Belfer. “It used to annoy me. But after a while, call me whatever you want. I don’t care what you call me. As long as you keep coming into the restaurant. They’re a thing of the past. There’s not that many left.”
As the closing of White Diamond of Linden demonstrated, there’s no federal subsidy for classic hamburger restaurants. “This is a hard business,” Belfer says. “There’s a lot of competition from places like McDonalds and Subway. You have to really be devoted to keep it running.” When asked why he keeps it up, he shrugs resignedly. “I grew up in this business,” he says. “It’s what I know. I earn a living at it. And I love the interaction with the people. I’m my own boss. I don’t have to listen to a boss, I can leave early. It’s as much freedom as I could possibly want from any career or job.”
White Rose of Linden, with its American flags dangling and its square, chrome-dappled vintage architecture, ought to be famous, but isn’t, Linden being as impenetrable to the food media as Frodo was to the Eye of Sauron. But at least one North Jersey slider has attained some prominence: White Manna of Hackensack. In truth, White Manna produces one of the worst hamburgers of any of their tribe, at least to my mind, owing to their odd decision to depart from the formula and use low-fat beef. The burgers are not soft and succulent there, but none of the customers seem to notice, since the heaping piles of mushy-sweet caramelized onions and even sweeter potato rolls cover a multitude of sins. White Manna of Hackensack probably does more business than any three or four of its sister restaurants, and commands a vocal cult of followers, both in New Jersey and outside. “I’ve loved it since I was a little kid; the sliders are fantastic, greasy and super-oniony. Nom nom nom!” enthuses one of hundreds of reviews on the Internet review site Yelp.
George Motz, in his encyclopedic book, Hamburger America, characterizes White Manna as “beyond a doubt, one of the most historically important hamburger joints in America.” The place has been on countless TV shows, a stand-in for the whole lost kingdom of small, no-frills burger joints of old. As if to underscore the point, a McDonalds operates right across the street, the very symbol of corporate synthesis.
“They kept opening fast-food places around us,” says John Aldridge, whose family operated White Manna from 1947 until 2007, when they sold it to Ronny Cohen, its current owner. Aldridge was unmoved by the incursion of modern fast-food chains nearby. “Roy Rogers, Arby’s, Burger King, Hardee’s. After every one opened, our business increased. Our hamburgers taste the way they did 50 years ago…We cut the onions by hand, and when they cook on the grill you can see the steam condense on the windows of the sneeze guard. Nothing can touch this.”
A few miles south, an estranged sister restaurant, White Mana of Jersey City, commands no such loyalty. (The missing N was left off the sign and never corrected, an omen of sloppy operation to come.) Started by Louis Bridges in 1946, the octagonal building was picked up and carried from the 1939 World’s Fair in Queens, where its Things to Come shape had awed visitors, to its current location, an unloved stretch of industrial Tonnelle Avenue.
If anything, the Jersey City building is even more architecturally striking. But it lacks a certain soul. The burgers are dry and gnarly. The room has some old stuff, but also plywood booths, signed celebrity headshots and other things that intrude on the perfectly preserved, Edison’s-desk-just-as-he-left-it atmosphere of the Hackensack place. Bridges opened three other White Manna (or White Mana) joints around North Jersey in the ’40s, but they didn’t survive.
Much magic is lost when these restaurants dissipate their hard-won, unglamorous authority in generic nostalgia. White Diamond of Rahway is hopelessly compromised, from an atmospheric point of view, by the presence of ’50s kitsch on its walls—this restaurant’s culture derives from the Depression. English Nick was aghast when he found out that they serve wraps there, and created a scene of cross-cultural awkwardness by trying to impress upon the grizzled, ursine cook that he was violating the spirit of the place. “What’s wrong with wraps?” the cook asked.
It’s not enough to effuse about these places. These few precarious restaurants, withering on back roads in post-industrial despair, deserve our patronage. They connect us with one of the best parts of our own past—both as New Jerseyans and as Americans. When I eat their hamburgers, the smallness of them, their simplicity, the equilibrium of their cheese and their meat and their bread and their onions, all coalesce in my mind with the paper plates and grease-stained brown paper bags carried out by the aging customers, and the quiet fluttering of the flags in front of Rich Belfer’s hamburger Eden. As long as we keep going, they won’t close any time soon. Hamburgers, like history, can persist if only you let them.
Rutgers graduate Josh Ozersky writes the “Taste of America” column for Time.com and is author of three books, including The Hamburger.
Sidebar: Slider Central—find a restaurant that serves sliders near you:
White Rose of Linden
1301 E. Elizabeth Ave, Linden
White Diamond of Rahway
745 E. Hazelwood Ave, Rahway
White Rose of Roselle
201 E. 1st Ave, Roselle
White Diamond of Clark
1207 Raritan Road, Clark
Fern’s White Diamond
1208 1/2 E. Grand St, Elizabeth
1601 W. Blancke St, Linden
White Rose System (Highland Park)
154 Woodbridge Ave,
358 River St, Hackensack
470 Tonnelle Ave, Jersey City