"It was the best of times. It was the worst of times."
I first read A Tale of Two Cities by Charles Dickens back when I was a wee youth. Prone to reminiscing from time to time, there are many things from our youth that we romanticize, even as adults. I grew up eating sliders from The Hamburger Station. This is a local chain of about four stores (I think there were quite a few more when I was younger) in and around the Akron, OH area. After moving out of Akron in mid-junior high school, though, this practice ceased. To be fair, my new home in Wadsworth wasn't all that far from Akron, but they just sort of fell off my radar.
As I was perusing around the 'Net the other day, I happened to come across a discussion of White Castle sliders. Now, I know that some people absolutely LOVE White Castle. And to others it is one of the most disgusting things they have ever put in their mouths. Personally, I've never had a White Castle slider, even though I lived in Columbus for a number of years and the retail stores were all over the place. It just never occurred to me that it should be something I would want to try.
Reviewing the food of national chain restaurants is not something I want to focus on in my blog. If they are national and you can get them anywhere, in my mind they lose their uniqueness. At the same time, having never had a White Castle slider before and the fact that I could do a head-to-head comparison with a LOCAL chain like The Hamburger Station, I decided to acquiesce on this particular rule for now. Doing a quick Google Maps search led me to the White Castle located on South Arlington Street, right off of I-77.
Upon entering the store, there was a fairly short line to place your order. I looked over the menu and decided to just go "Plain Jane" and order the basic combo meal: four sliders, an order of fries, and a soda for $4.99. When I finally got to the front of the line, I placed my order and upgraded to cheese sliders for $1 more. For some reason, the person taking my order only then asked if I wanted to add their new pulled pork slider to my order (from what followed after I paid for my order, it occurred to me that she wasn't the shiniest rock in the box). I declined, paid for my meal, and stepped to the side so that she could take the next customer's order.
Apparently, that's when the floor show began. Another co-worker, obviously flustered with the order taker's performance, pushed her (not hard) out of the way so she could access the register to "fix" the orders. Cue Jerry Springer-esque shouting match. Yes, right in front of the customers. It reminded me of the Arby's on Rt. 82 in North Royalton from a decade ago. We would go in there to grab lunch and would be treated to the antics of some of the most brain dead employees any of us had ever seen. Even the managers were terrible, yelling back at employees in front of the customers. Tonight's performance ranked right up there.
Ok, back to the food. Now, I knew from reading about White Castle how they prepare their sliders. The square patties go down on the grill, are then covered with some grilled onions, and the heel (bottom half of the bun) is placed on top. This allows the bun to "steam" as the burgers cook on the grill. At service time, the burgers are flipped right side up, topped with pickles and cheese (if ordered), and the crown (top half of the bun) is placed on top. This is then inserted into a small cardboard box that stays open on one end. Condiments are the responsibility of the consumer at the table.
One thing I did notice while I was waiting for my order to be completed was that both flat top grills had about 1/3 of their area covered with already cooked (and onioned and heeled) sandwiches just sitting there. While this was covered with a bit of parchment paper to keep them from airborne particulate, who knows how long they had been sitting there. And honestly, the parchment may have contributed to the problems I will describe a little later in the post. Just as the parchment keeps things from landing on the burgers from the top, it also helped to hold in the moisture underneath, too.
Probably due to the shouting match between the two employees, the four sliders I had ordered had already been taken off the grill, finished, and were sitting on a plate on one of the counters. It took another five minutes for the fries to join them. First thing that popped into my brain? Lukewarm sliders. And sadly by the time I finally managed to get my drink and napkins and condiments, they were exactly that.
Here is a shot of my meal:
Remember how I said that each of those cardboard boxes is open at one end? Take a look:
First, let's talk about the fries. These actually weren't terrible. Some were pretty crispy, others had a bit more limp to them. Fortunately, though, they weren't greasy. I consider the fries to be the highlight of the meal.
On to the sliders. Like I said at the beginning of the post, I think you either love these things or you hate them. And no offense to any of my gentle readers out there who love a White Castle slider, but I didn't find them good in the least. Tasteless meat, overly soggy heel, onions with a strange bitter flavor; truly a trifecta of terrible. I kept trying various condiment combinations thinking that I must be missing something. After three of the four sliders were gone, I just gave up and decided to use the fourth slider for a post-mortem analysis.
Out of its cardboard home:
Just the picture perfect shot I'm sure White Castle's marketing department hopes for, right?
Next up, the slider with the crown removed:
As you can see at the front of the burger (bottom of the picture), the brownish/gray coloring is where the heel has basically lost all integrity because it had become too soggy.
And finally, the money shot. Soggy city, indeed:
Like I mentioned earlier, the fact that the heel had been sitting on that grill for who knows how long AND underneath the parchment paper probably contributed to this soggy, yucky mess. By all means, if you enjoy these, don't let me dissuade you. Better yet, if you enjoy a good floor show with your sliders, I'd highly recommend the White Castle on South Arlington. It didn't make the burgers taste any better, but at least I cracked a smile once or twice.
Knowing that I needed some culinary redemption after my meal, I decided to stop by an Akron favorite for some frozen custard. Strickland's was started in the mid 1930's and has proliferated in Akron and the surrounding suburbs. Some of the locations are walk-up only (like the one that I went to tonight), while others have indoor seating. I decided to go to the store right across the field from the Goodyear blimp hanger, on the corner of Massillon Road and Triplett Boulevard since it was on my way home. For some reason, Yahoo Maps can't find that location, but the link above should get you to a map. Here is the side view:
Strickland's custard is wonderfully dense and rich. Being made on-site, every day they feature two new flavors. In fact, not all of the Strickland's are on the same flavor schedule, so you could literally go to two store locations on the same day and find two completely different sets of featured flavors. Today's flavors were pumpkin and royal cake batter. They will give you free taste samples if you ask and I opted to try both flavors. The royal cake batter was good (think of a cross between frozen custard and vanilla cake batter), but the pumpkin was WAY good. Not only that, but they were currently churning out the pumpkin, so I knew it was fresh.
I opted for a small pumpkin sundae with nothing but whipped cream on top for $2.85. Here is what I received:
How do I describe this? The first bite with the whipped cream was nothing short of spectacular. The pumpkin flavor, the traditional pumpkin spices (cinnamon, nutmeg, allspice, clove), the controlled sweetness, and the whipped cream all came together to whisk me back to the traditional Thanksgiving pumpkin pie slice. In custard form. It was so delicately balanced and delicious. Which oddly enough, turned out to be its downfall.
The first bite, heavenly. The third bite, pretty good. By the fourth bite, my tongue was so cold that the only thing I could taste was creamy and sweet. And that pretty much was how the rest of my sundae went until after I finished it and was back on the road. By then my taste buds had been given the proper time to start warming back up and suddenly I was hit with round two of the flavorful pumpkin and pumpkin spices.
Don't get me wrong, I truly enjoyed that sundae, but by making the flavors of the pumpkin and spices so delicately interwoven and subtle, they ended up with a flavor that can only be enjoyed at its maximum at the beginning and end of the experience. And I can understand how the person developing the recipe might not realize the problem. They are tasting it one spoonful at a time before making adjustments, thus allowing their taste buds to remain in the unfrozen and useful state.
All that said, Strickland's is definitely recommended.
In my follow-up post, I plan on visiting another frozen custard stand that was one of my childhood favorites, Stoddard's, for a head-to-head comparison to Strickland's. That is, after my visit to The Hamburger Station.