Monthly Archives: December 2006

White Mana’s appeal spans generations.

A couple days ago I received this letter from the father of the friend with whom I went on the Man(n)a excursion last Sunday.  It put a smile on my face, and the sentiments expressed herein are the kind that make me want to go on the road a la George Motz and chronicle every single independent food shack in America.  Places like the White Man(n)as are one of America’s proudest culinary legacies, and I’ll never hesitate to stop in a place like Al’s French Frys or B&D Burger – if you’re interested in some American food history along with your good eats, neither should you.

Mike,
 
Justin (my son) passed on a link to your erudite opinion on classic hamburger joints in $20 bucks a day (White Manna review).
 
It’s a heartwarming (or is that congesting) feeling that at least some great things don’t change much over the years.
 
I grew up in Roselle NJ, back in the old days before the food chains started taking over the world and forcing us to eat fried cryogenic things they said we wanted. And, the truth be known, we did want White Castle - and the small chains. But alas it was the American way to succumb to the big players, Mickey D’s, Burger King and all the rest. We sold our souls for the sub-prime meat and of course superior marketing. To hell with the taste and ambiance. I’m pretty sure we all regret that choice these days.
 
So, your White Manna file made me think of a local small chain in neighboring Linden called “White Diamond”. I’ve been to JC’s White Manna and you could easily be transported back 40 years putting one foot into that metallic chrome and tiled palace of hamburger heaven.
 
For me, White Diamond was the place to escape on an early Sunday afternoon after we told our parents that we were going to church for 12:00 mass. It was a place to recap the previous night’s wild happenings while we savored the aroma, sizzle, and finally taste that was to help us recover from our hangover, bad or good date, or other musings of being a teenager. The burger to order for those in the know was the “double-cheese.”
 
As you sat down on the round plastic covered stool that only God could move, I can still remember the cook (maybe truck driver too?), pick up the round meatballs of raw beef in his bare hands and emphatically throw them on the sizzling grill. Add onions to be fried, of course. All easily sliding on the grill due to an indeterminate yellow fatty lubricant substance. The high point in all this was of course was the “spatual slap” as he smooched the two patties together (thus the double-cheese). 
 
As the burger-to-be cooked, the precise amount of salt and pepper was applied to everything by a seeming random shake of big salt and pepper shakers, then the thick piece of yellow american cheese was applied. The end result was not a perfectly round burger, far from it. Its edges spread in all directions. And, for the final ingredient an old fashioned “hard roll” was placed on the burger while it was still in its final stages of transformation so that it could absorb some of the hot juices below.
 
Expertly placed on the diner’s porcelain plate, the only thing else needed was optional fries and a coke.
 
I’m guessing this all may still sound familiar and that you might be remembering the same thing years from now yourself. Keep up the good work. $20 a day is an admirable challenge that will bring you to the people and places that become the true memories in our lives.
 
Paul K.

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Superheroes.

You know, I’ve eaten a fair number of sandwiches in my life, in every shape and size imaginable. I’ve never, not even in my late hero-eating binge, seen a sandwich the size of Defonte’s “Nicky’s Special.” It is the undisputed heavyweight champion of the sandwich world. I should have had the affable owner weigh the damn thing, in retrospect.

I’ve long lusted after a trip to DeFonte’s, but never knew what the hours were, and had developed a tendency to stroll by when the place was shuttered (like, for example, all day Sunday). Finally, with my trip to the ballfields a couple months back, I blew by during opening hours, but had already consumed enough pupusas to make my stomach explode. I took a menu, wrote down the hours (6AM-4PM, Mon.-Sat.), and promised to get back as soon as I could raise a posse to accompany me.

That time was lunch on this past Saturday, and, while making the trek over from Boerum Hill, our appetites (I even skipped my morning pastry) peaked. One friend, who’d made the effort to come down from the Upper West Side, wondered if he’d have to order two sandwiches to be fulfilled. I told him I doubted it, but I had no idea the extent to which we’d later laugh about it until I saw one of the Nicky’s Specials presented with a thump on the back counter (the owner generously allowed us to chow down on the premises).

Again, I’ve seen healthy newborns smaller than this sandwich. It’s not filled with crap, either – the stars of the show were the thinly sliced fried eggplant (done, it would seem, that morning) and the “hot” (spicy vegetable) salad, which looks like something you’d find on a salad bar until you get the first “whoosh!” of heat. Compared to those, the other ingredients demure, but examine this list: provolone, ham, salami, capicolla, prosciuttini (made from the belly rather than the leg, as prosciutto is), mushrooms, lettuce and tomato. And the bread, while not reaching the semolina heights of Alidoro’s finest loaf, splits the difference between being a structurally sound foundation (critical for a hero of this size) and edibility. It’s good, in other words.

Also good is the owner’s temprament and friendliness. He obviously had us pegged as first-timers from the moment we walked in, and took the time to engage us. He even asked what my other favorite sandwiches were – apparently he wasn’t just sizing up the competition, as he’s friends with Faicco’s owner. You can tell he loves his craft.

Get to Defonte’s – I give the heroes my unqualified recommendation, and, if you get the largest size, you could easily make two meals from it for $10 (the 1/3 size isn’t really that much smaller, for what it’s worth). Make sure you go on a nice day, though. You’ll want to take a stroll down Van Brunt to the waterfront afterwards just to shake off the effects.

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Mana from heaven.

For months, a friend of mine and I have been planning a trip to both of the legendary White Man(n)as of northern New Jersey.  Last night, a jointly acceptable time finally arose, but after barreling down River Street, crazed with hunger, in what seemed to me like the middle of nowhere in Hackensack, we arrived just a few minutes after the White Manna had closed.  A hush went over the car, punctuated only by occasional wails and the astute observation that the microscopic joint was “so cute!”

Cute really isn’t on the menu at the Jersey City White Mana, though the art-deco ambiance is not totally absent.  It’s on a rather seedy stretch of the 1/9 semi-highway (as though there are un-seedy stretches, heh) and, as befits its location across the street from a real dive of a boxing bar, the walls are lined with pictures of pugilists real (Mike Tyson) and imagined (Sly Stallone, in a beautiful double breasted suit and skinny tie combo).

I can’t say we much cared about the ambiance when we walked in, though.  At that point, we were just awfully glad that it was open (24 hours!) when we arrived.  Personally, I still think it’s goofy to order twenty cheeseburgers to split between six people (not growing up in the land of Chateau Blanc will do that to you), but we did it one better and ordered twenty-one, along with a double cheeseburger and a bunch of fries and onion rings.

Given that I was there with a bunch of Mana semi-regulars, I was a bit surprised to note that none of them had ever seen a menu before.  It was from that menu and from instincts divined from many meals and Schnack that I ordered the double cheeseburger – none of my friends had ever thought to do so before, and it was an immediate object of jealousy on their part.  Apparently they’ve been fixing the out-of-whack burger-to-bun ratio for years now by combining two singles into their own double. The bottom line is that double meat is a much more optimal experience, however you go about it.  There just isn’t enough meat on the rather generic bun otherwise.

A bit about that special meat: it is basically a hash, as it is dumped in a large crumble onto the griddle and parceled out into burger shapes (and squashed flat by the spatula work of the fry cook) only after some cooking has already taken place.  The onions, happily, are cooked alongside the meat, giving it good flavor (another advantage of the double cheeseburger was the cache of onions that were nestled in between patties).

(Note about the sides: Onion rings were kind of awful, but the fries were okay, and, if you like them particularly crispy, ask – our plates varied in terms of done-ness, and opinions differed as to which were preferable.)

I can say, without a doubt, that White Mana beats its chain imitator (the afore-mentioned Chateau Blanc).  AHT’s coverage of the other Manna leads me to believe that we missed out by not getting to the Hackensack branch – especially in the bun department.  I rather liked the rough charms of the Jersey City branch, though: another unheralded American original.

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