Before he moved to New Jersey from Florida by way of Columbia, Jose Soto confesses that he used to routinely eat at Burger King and McDonald's. "I didn't know better!" he exclaimed, referring to the difference between eating the frozen, prefabricated hamburgers served by the mega chains and ones that are prepared with fresh ingredients sourced from local purveyors.
That all changed when he moved to New Jersey in 1999 and started flipping burgers at the White Rose System in Roselle, one of the few remaining vestiges of the golden age of the slider. The success of White Castle in the 1920s inspired a slew of imitators; it wasn't long before all manner of restaurants with the word "White" in the title sprang up. A small number of them continue to survive in Northern New Jersey where you can still find White Manna, the separate (and unequal) White Mana, the aforementioned White Rose, and White Diamond, where Soto recently started working. While White Castle abandoned its original ideals of using fresh ingredients long ago and opted—ironically, given how they shaped the industry—to follow the frozen, rationalized lead of the big chains, these restaurants never did.
White Diamond still gets fresh beef delivered once or, depending on how busy they are, twice a day every day of the week. The bread is also delivered daily and comes fresh from Billy's Bakery in nearby Roselle. While the original griddle had to be replaced recently—it was so bowed from decades of use that it no longer functioned correctly—the rest of the structure remains virtually unchanged. The exterior is as classic an example of the mid-century aluminum diner as you will find, while the interior—with its once jaunty, but now worn interior decked out in pale blue and white tile—doesn't look like it has changed much in decades. A towering aluminum shaft with a window that reveals the flat top griddle inside sits front and center, flanked by counter seating.
The sole nod to modernity is the menu's inclusion of a quarter-pound burger served on a kaiser roll that is larger than the classic two-ounce patties on white buns traditionally served by White Diamond. I have never tried one, always opting for the smaller, but original sliders. The beef, despite the diminutive patty size, is big on flavor. It is a straight chuck that is delivered from the butcher in preformed cylinders that get smashed into patties on the griddle top. Order a burger with onions and they will be embedded in the patty; sit too close to the griddle and you might get hit with onion shrapnel. The beef is griddle-steamed, with cheese and bread placed atop the sizzling patty once it is flipped, causing the cheese to become molten and the bun to become pillow-soft and warmed through.
Said bun is perfection in baking. It is admittedly a bit big for the single patty (order a double for a better balance), but it has a squishiness and compliance that makes it the perfect textural match for the tender beef. It is the closest bun I have had to one from White Castle, but that uses fresh ingredients. It has that somewhat fragile crust that fractures and cracks, yet paradoxically remains subtle, the interior being airy and curiously gritty, but not in unpleasant way.
Biting into a White Diamond cheeseburger rewards one with equal parts flavor, textural balance, and nostalgia. The soft bun easily succumbs to slight pressure, the tender beef inside is juicy despite being cooked through, and the beef has a surprisingly hearty taste. The gooey American cheese cements the beef to the bun. Add pickles for some snap, but if you want ketchup on top of your burger you might want to ask for it to be applied for you—trying to do so yourself will cause the delicate bun to rip in two. But I don't think you will need it; the burger is juicy enough on its own.
Certainly in this day and age of the custom burger blends from boutique steers being bandied about in high-end restaurants, the sliders at White Diamond are charmingly anachronistic, even quaint. But they are not only a reminder of the roots of the hamburger itself; they offer a more genuine, more innately American incarnation of the sandwich, one that is accessible, by virtue of its price, to the everyman. A burger that fuels those looking to fulfill their American dream, not those who have attained it and can't decide between the foie gras-stuffed Kobe beef burger or the swordfish meatloaf with onion marmalade.
Soto's American dream is to one day move to the sunny climes of Southern Florida and open a slider restaurant using the same ethos as White Diamond and the handful of similar burger relics that dot the New Jersey landscape: fresh ingredients, locally sourced, and fairly priced. "Maybe it will even be a White Diamond!" he enthuses. Cheeseburgers in paradise anyone?
White Diamond is permanently closed.