Every once in awhile, my belly aches for simple, no-frills food—food that’s basic and honest, but definitely not in the wholesome sense.
That’s when I search in my memory for foods that feed my soul: spaghetti and meatballs; a thin, greasy slice of pizza (baked exclusively in those gas ovens with the small, hinged door); peanut butter and jelly on spongy, sliced bread; and burgers, the way my dad and I used to enjoy on Wednesday nights when he’d take me to White Manna—a tiny burger joint in Hackensack, New Jersey.
I have a lot of great memories of eating at White Manna with my dad. Even before I had the words to describe why I thought food was good, White Manna was a special place for me. Though I can’t remember the first time he ever took me there, I can remember a lot of cold winter nights, being packed together with twenty-or-so strangers as we waited for the cook to look our way so my dad could blurt out our order: seven-with-cheese-and-onions-and-one-order-of-fries (or whatever we were having that night). He was clear and direct because this place was serious business.
The windows would fog up from the food and the crowds, and I can remember the smell of caramelized meat and onions—a smell we would eventually wear—wafting into my nose and causing me to salivate. The fries always came first. They were the piping hot, crinkle-cut kind. They were never particularly stellar, but with a nearby pool of ketchup, they were just the sustenance we needed to hold out for our delicious burgers. Then there were the soft drinks—the unsweet iced tea that always tasted a bit like cardboard.
The burgers were simple: small beef patty, American cheese, ribbons of onions, and Martin’s potato rolls, all served up on a paper plate with a handful of pickles. Not fancy house-made pickles, but straight-up pickles that probably came in a 300-gallon vat. They were magnificent.
No larger than a sheet of poster board, the cooktop would hold about 40-50 burgers at any one time. First came the patty—a small ball of meat mashed instantly on the hot cooktop. On came the strings of onions and a brief pause to cook, followed by a generous flip of this beautiful, tangled mess. Then came the cheese, bottom bun, and top bun—in exactly that order.
The burgers would sizzle away as each new order joined the pack. The cook would carefully lift the stack of ingredients, flip the top bun below, and pull out the spatula. They would invert and serve up this deliciously messy burger flavored with the crispy, meaty, cheesy, and oniony nubbins of all burgers past and present. I would watch and hope for the cheese to fall from someone else’s burger, just so it could fuse with mine and form a crispy, brown crust.
Hungry for these burgers—and a trip down memory lane with my dad—I invited him for a date at White Manna on a recent visit to New Jersey. This time, it was a remarkably hot summer day. Knowing the kind of chaos the lunch crowd could bring, we went at 11 am on a Monday morning. It was the calm before the storm, and it allowed us to to chat with the cooks and take a few photos of the space. Other than the addition of sriracha on the countertops, the restaurant and the menu remained unchanged.
The burgers were as delicious as I remembered: sweet, chewy bun; soft, stringy onions; melted american cheese—the kind that comes pre-sliced in a long, extruded rectangle; and a thin disc of browned meat.
The fries were also how I remembered. Hot, crispy, and served instantly to take the edge off of the long—perhaps five-minute—wait for our beloved burgers. We dug in when they were still a bit too hot, but who could blame us? On the upside, there was the same unsweet iced tea to space out each scalding hot bite—a tactic that became much less necessary by burger #3. By then, the burgers and fries had cooled enough to taste and savor each bite of our modest and lovingly prepared meal.
There was no duck fat, no house-made special sauce, and no option for locally cured bacon or a fried farm egg. Just my dad and me, a couple of paper plates, and the same burgers we ate 20 years ago.