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Hamburger Diaries: White Castle

Saturday, 29 January, 2011

My apologies to my readership. I am certain both of you realize I am somewhat busy these days and the blog evidently is not a priority. Future, or I should say eventual, entries will address the mild renovation of the apartment and the nature of my personal relationship which has lead to all the busyness. We’re also two men down at the plant, and I’m spending considerable time working as well.

As recently as December 2010 had you asked me whether any of these burger joints I think about had authentic integrity I would have given you a funny look. Once collected, I probably would have conceded that the only existing chain of Hamburger-oriented quick-service restaurants which has authentic integrity is White Castle.

White Castle keeps a reasonably priced menu of essential items, with little variation, a modest number of beverages including a house-blend coffee and stark, functional restaurants. This system works for them. When you go to White Castle you know what you’re in for, even on your first visit. The system is about cleanliness and function. The food is devised to be amenable to the system, but not for a moment compromised in texture or taste. Admittedly over the many years I have received cold fries at WC, albeit rarely, so the system is not foolproof.

My previous walk-in experience at a White Castle was at a co-branded WC and Church’s Chicken in Nashville, September 1998. The Hamburger Diaries were far beyond the imagination of the man I was in those days, so I work exclusively from contaminated memories. The billboard on the freeway announced “First Chance” with the WC logo between the words. I took that chance. Imagine; two years without the taste some people can’t live without. sighs 

I bound into a quiet restaurant, and immediately barked my order of four “White Castles”, four Cheeseburgers, fries, onion rings and the Big-Value coffee. The attendant replied, “So, where you coming from?” I suspect that conversation starter was used every day. As always, my burgers were served right off the grill and everything assembled with uncanny speed. I was almost certainly in and out within ten minutes, possibly as little as five. White Castle established the concept of quick service decades before the phrase “fast food” entered the language. They certainly took that aspect seriously.

I remember that one can actually feel the olfactory sensation of Ingram and Anderson’s world-famous Hamburger sandwich. Rich, if reconstituted, onion, tart pickle, Dusseldorf mustard, their creation, on request. I like cheese. A nice beef flavor, enhanced by its condiments on a bun streamed over the very burger onto which it is served. This bun is warm, moist and a bit too doughy. Alas, all part of the experience. At the bus stop on a bitter winter’s night, there is nothing better. Until moving to Texas in the late 90s I never had the opportunity to think, “It’s been a long time since I’ve had White Castle.”

logo of White Castle

2003 logo

When traveling great distances by car, one occasionally stops for fuel and meals. Recently, life took your humble narrator from Texas to Northern Kentucky. When in that part of the world I would always make a special stop if required to revisit White Castle. This stop was on Scottsville Road in Bowling Green, Kentucky on the morning of 1 January 2011.

My order: four White Castles, four cheeseburgers, fries, onion rings and a fountain drink.

I presume, due to the holiday, management from Nashville was staffing the restaurant. The folks behind the counter were overdressed, older than I anticipated, and more eager than skilled. While waiting eight or nine minutes for my surely common order, I noted the renovated restaurant. Inexplicably, gold has been added to WC’s company livery. I am uncertain as to what this is intending to convey. The restaurant itself is wholly unlike the classic White Castle I was raised on or the “normalized” WC of the 1980s. Every element of the decor was busy. Patterns on the wall tile. Another pattern on the floor. A “normal”, single walk-up station, and yes, serve yourself fountain drinks. It was as though this generation of management decided to make everything modestly alienating about WC both the opposite of whatever it was and utterly, comprehensively alienating. Like Wienerschnitzel, pictures reminding you of the White Castle you actually intended to visit clutter the walls. Almost no sign of stainless steel anywhere.

Service was not as efficient as I anticipated, but was within normal parameters for the industry. I pour my Diet Coke and head back to the car.

The White Castle signature sandwich, revised:

  • Thick, dry, normal, untoasted bun.
  • A slice of pickle with not nearly enough tart
  • the onion flavor and volume is like that of McDonalds, which is to say, why do they even bother?
  • bland, unseasoned beef.

To make a Cheeseburger add one slice of White Castle’s corporate-gold colored processed cheese-food product. Velveeta would be an improvement. The fries and rings were fine, pretty much par for the course. I noticed new-to-me rings on the menu, some are profoundly processed chicken. As one may expect in this age, WC offers combos although nothing interesting or unanticipated.

But the legendary world-famous signature Hamburger sandwich is no more.

White Castle has abandoned its reason to exist in an effort to be more like the failing restaurants they inspired. I don’t know how they are doing as a going concern. As a private company figures are hard to find. I cannot imagine going and getting a nouveau White Castle …

Well, at all really. We’re done. I actually threw out two untouched sandwiches. Neither my travelling companion or myself could stand to even think about choking down another disappointment.
White Castle: I’m not wanting you. I’m not thinking about you. When I read that you are coming to a new town or abandoning yet another market, it doesn’t mean anything. White Castle is over.

It’s a damned shame.

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5 Comments
  1. Graeme permalink
    Saturday, 29 January, 2011 9:52

    I can’t imagine that White Castle is about to expand anywhere. They’ve been retreating for years. And the chain seems to hate me.

    I grew up a mile from the White Castle at Chenoweth Ln. & Frankfort Avenue. Everyone in town knows damn well that restaurant was doing a killer business. But there was no drive through, so they scrapped it. They said they’d scout another location, but they haven’t. There is now a vast gap in the Louisville area that I’m sure has people eating at Penn Station, Taco Bell, or wherever else is more convenient. Insane.

    About a year before I moved to Kansas City in 2002 they pulled out of that market completely. Everyone I asked about it hated the place, yet they had all been there.

    When I lived in Chicago there was a White Castle about a mile from me. It was always full. There was a drive through. The drive through was jam-packed every weekend. They closed it down & a Walgreens went in.

    I do not understand what this company is doing! I don’t believe the ownership does, either.

    Every time we go back there, there is something new on the menu that looks DISGUSTING. I do like the chicken rings, though.

    I have had dry Castles before. It happens sometimes. When they’re perfect, though, nothing beats them. The texture, as you mention, is like no other hamburger on earth.

    I will keep eating there if they keep any locations open.

    When I go back to KY I try to hit White Castle and Skyline. It’s a real contrast these days. White Castle is trying to be something it isn’t, and Skyline is plugging away doing what it does best. Kinda like In ‘n’ Out. I respect the hell out of the consistency.

    I know fast food is a novelty, but I wonder why it has to be. Why does it have to be over the top? Why can’t it be as simple as a burger & fries?

    Besides, if White Castle is going to change anything on their menu, why do the fries still suck so badly?

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    • Monday, 31 January, 2011 2:54

      Shoestrings. I remember shoestrings. Nothing spectacular, but shoestrings cooked in small batches consistently. What I was served was a cross between a crinkle-cut and a shoestring. While not especially memorable or worth seeking out, they were satisfying in that essential fashion which has lead to the popularity of pommes frites. The fries are not brilliant, but I don’t understand your utter disdain toward them at all. At first I thought I misremembered or perhaps they were different today, as so many things are.

      With “retro” and “authentic” being the themes of the decade, all WC has to do is open the restaurants they operated in 1960. Ideally, they would have the same miniscule footprint. The drive-through was an excuse. Even when I was hanging around St. Matthews a bit the nice people hated it … and all ate there. We also have the other closed WC at Bardstown Road and Eastern Parkway (closed 1988?) which the city and the Neighborhood Association coerced the land owner to octuple the rent to get it out so they could have a historically correct thirty-minute oil change. It was at this White Castle I was served the last shake. They ran out of mix.

      I do not miss the irony of the first presence of Jack in the Box (Q’doba) within the state of Kentucky is directly across Eastern Pkwy.

      The latest thing I’ve heard, and this is about a year old, is that PSB has acquired property in McLennan County, TX and therefore White Castle will be opening stores in Dallas and points south. About as likely as In-N-Out opening a store in Dallas. They’ve got to do something, because they are closing stores at a relatively rapid clip. My vote is for airport, mall and shopping center locations in new markets where people have only the legend.

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      • Graeme permalink
        Thursday, 3 February, 2011 10:26

        White Castle fries are the worst of all worlds. They’re meaty enough to be bland, despite being fried in the same oil as the onion rings. That oil does the chicken rings a world of good!

        I always get them when I go get the family a Crave Case, and they always get thrown away.

        I agree White Castle is looking forward when they should be looking backward. I guess they figure their demographic is looking for new distractions instead of the modicum of class that should come with WC’s longevity.

        1988 or ’89 for Eastern Parkway’s closure, for sure. I remember all the high school kids setting their garbage cans on fire while waiting for the bus after school.

        I had planned to try the Jollibee chain on Tuesday, but their downtown SF location just closed. They have another location near SFO, so I will get down there at some point to try Filipino quick service. I have also been meaning to try Quickly, but have yet to do so. There’s a location right over at Fillmore & Geary, so I should be able to knock that out while I’m between jobs. We’ll see.

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  2. Sunday, 30 January, 2011 11:59

    Superb content, I must say i enjoy up-dates from you.

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  3. Monday, 19 December, 2011 11:37

    reading your article, i may there will be never any white castle “restaurant” here in Hungary

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