"Do you want to go to New Jersey for a burger? Have you ever been to White Manna? It's close to my parent's house."
I thought Dan was kidding when he asked me that while hanging out in his Williamsburg apartment. Of course I wanted to go to White Manna; anyone who knows their burgers knows about White Manna. But I'm ashamed to admit that, despite growing up in Northern New Jersey, it took 23 years for me to actually make my way over there—and not even when I was living in New Jersey. As much as I had to get the White Manna experience under my belt, we certainly couldn't just go to small burger joint in New Jersey on a whim on a Thursday night from Brooklyn. It's like...sort of far, last time I checked.
And then I found out that Dan had a car. Ohh. Well, if I'm not driving, then hell yes.
I, along with Dan's roommate and another friend from out of town, hopped into the car as Dan took us to a magical land across the George Washington Bridge. That land? Hackensack, home to White Manna, a relic of the 1940s and, as far as I can tell, the most historically significant burger joint in the Garden State (along with White Mana, the similar burger joint in Jersey City, which is older but I heard not as tasty). The wee art deco diner looks like something out of a movie set, but there it is, plopped in the middle of Jersey suburbia. It's a breath of fresh air. Not literally.
"You're going to reek of meat after we're done," Dan warned us.
As soon as I reached the entrance, the fumes hit me: meat and onions. Beautiful.
If we hadn't arrived there at 10 p.m., it may have been harder for all of us to sit around the U-shaped counter. But it was bustling even at that hour, although probably with locals and not four random Brooklynites.
There were only two guys behind the counter. One was in charge of making all the burgers and the other was in charge of all the other stuff. Although on retrospect, I'm not sure if he was taking orders; he may have just told us to directly tell the cook what we wanted.
What should you order at White Manna? To my then-naive mind, sliders were tiny things. Methinks White Castle had too much of an influence on me because I felt like slider portion sizes should be counted in sacks. White Manna may make small burgers, but they're far from bite-sized.
When Dan said he could eat five (or was it more?) burgers in one sitting, I thought, "Well, I generally eat more food than a normal human being should; maybe that means I can eat four of them." I changed my mind when his other friend ordered a reasonable two burgers. I went for three single cheeseburgers, not realizing that just because a cheeseburger is $1.30 ($1.30!!) that meant it was diminutive. Three was one too many, but I'd find that out later, mostly in the pit of my intestinal tract for the rest of the night.
The burger assembly process is quite simple. Place rows of fresh meat plops on the griddle.
After a while, smush em down and add a liberal coating of thinly sliced onions that will melt into glorious sweet, semi-translucent mounds.
After another while, flip the patties over and add cheese. Stack the bottom potato bun and top bun on the patty. When it's ready to go, take off the top bun, flip the rest over, crown the burger with the top bun, and...
OH MY GOD YES, BURGERS ARE READY, IN MY MOUTH THEY GO. (Along with complimentary pickles.)
And then they went. The bun was perfectly soft and squishy like a good potato roll is (it's my favorite burger bun by far), the meat was moist and fatty, and the onions and cheese gave the burger that welcome hit of sweetness and gooeyness. The proportions were just right for my tastes.
But. But. (I hate to have a but.) The meat was not seasoned. (I asked the guys behind the counter to confirm.) There was no salt. And while I guess that's what the ketchup was for, I really, really wish there had been salt in the patty. Bland meat isn't your friend. Of course, it tasted good, but it didn't reach its life-changing-burger potential. Everything was in place except for the sodium content.
I'd eat it again though, given the chance. It's the experience of eating the burger in such an awesome environment that makes it special. Even though I realized I was food coma-full after the second burger, I persevered—probably with a bit of heavy breathing and unfocused vision—until the third burger completely made its way into my belly. I paid the price by carry a dull brick-like feeling in my belly for the rest of the night while internally moaning, "Oh god why the fuck did I do thaaaaat," but it was worth it.
Dan ordered some burgers to-go as a surprise for his parents. What a nice son. I hope one day my progeny will unexpectedly show up at my doorstep after 10:30 p.m. wielding burgers.
When I got home and sniffed my clothing far from the influence of other people who had been White Manna-ed, I realized how much I reeked of meat and onions. 'Tis the badge of a successful burger night.
358 River St
Hackensack, NJ 07601