It appeared phoenixlike one recent afternoon as I was stuck hopelessly in the left-turn lane from Clark onto Ridge. Glancing at the southwest corner, I saw what appeared to be the shell of a restaurant, sans signage.
A hoax? A fantasy? I wondered.
The Help Wanted sign spoke the happy news: “Opening soon. White Castle.”
Hosanna! Lord, let me be the first to delight in a slider at this new castle. The company, White Castle System, Inc., answers my prayers, arranging for supervisors Ron Rehder and Danny Dwyer to meet me for a sampling of virgin sliders, the first off the spanking new cast-iron grills.
“Once these grills fire up they’ll be in business 24 hours a day, except Christmas Eve, forever,” Rehder says. North-side-dwelling sufferers of the occasional hankering for a slider need drive south or west no more.
A serious burger aficionado, Rehder hands me a booklet, “‘All This From a 5-cent Hamburger!’ The Story of the White Castle System,” written by E. W. Ingram Sr., who founded the company in 1921.
“We want to make White Castle a north-side tradition,” Rehder says. “This castle is in good shape to do that, located off two major thoroughfares. We want to get families through here. I like our drive-through potential.”
Kitty-corner from the castle is Duks 24-hour hamburger joint, where the proprietors perhaps have a different perspective.
This White Castle, number 61 in greater Chicagoland, is unique because it will feature stools and window counters, affording customers the chance to ingest sliders as they view traffic at one of the city’s busiest intersections.
As he seasons the grill with onions, Rehder informs me that it takes 15 days of training before new workers are slider-ready.
“That’s how I started 27 years ago with White Castle,” he recalls. “You start as a castle operator, and even if you work your way up, you still do what’s necessary, grab a broom or work the grill. We don’t ask our employees to do anything we haven’t done ourselves.”
Rehder says he eats sliders every working day, but he resists the frozen version when he’s home or on the road. “Those are for folks who live out west where there are no White Castles,” he explains. “If you’re going to eat the frozen though, you’d better know how to work a microwave. That’s the key.”
White Castle employees are encouraged to eat the product for free, before they start, during breaks, and even before they leave. But if they take any home, they have to pay full freight.
“It’s like a drug for me,” Dwyer says. “If I go away for a few days, I miss it. I long for sliders.”
Grill ready, we watch the first 30 sliders begin to steam upon the sizzling onion base. The distinctive five-holed frozen patties are seasoned with a salt-and-pepper mix (six salts to one pepper). The little buns are placed in rows on top of the mini burgers, the better to soak up that beefy, oniony juice.
Three minutes later, it’s time for assembly with a thin slice of dill pickle. Some people mess up the works with cheese or condiments. In Chicago you can add German mustard. In Saint Louis it’s French’s. In New York they serve sliders with catsup, a final sign the city is rotten to the core.
White Castles in Cincinnati, Detroit, Indianapolis, Louisville, Minneapolis… They’ve thrived pretty much everywhere, says Rehder, except Japan.
Ron serves me up number 61’s first slider on a small white paper plate. “Number one should taste like number one million,” he says with a wink.
And it does. The bun is moist, the sweet cooked onion contrasts brilliantly with the tart pickle. The meat is tender, not chewy. I beg for five more.
I inquire why it is that some people suggest they get a tummy ache from eating sliders.
“Eat too much of anything and you’ll get a stomachache,” Dwyer reasons. “Even prime rib.”
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photos/Charles Eshelman.