OK, so sliders are trendy. In the past year, they’ve appeared on menus at lowly Charleston sports bars and high-end restaurants, too. And, apparently, we didn’t start this trend. At the Kobe Club in New York City, three Wagyu beef sliders with caramelized onions and black truffle sauce will set you back $27. Sliders have even made it to backwater places like Columbia, where the Free Times has called them a “hipster food craze.”
And it’s hitting mainstream America like a hammer. Burger King has completed a pilot of six-pack Burger Shots in selected test markets, and they’ll be coming to a drive-thru near you. Billy Mays — the if-I-yell-loud-enough-you-gotta-buy-it guy from the OxyClean commercials — is now flogging the Big City Slider Station, a five-patty griddle pan that lets you join “the mini burger sensation that’s sweeping the nation” without leaving home.
So, maybe it’s time to get our arms around this whole slider phenomenon.
Trying to define “slider” can get you in trouble, for a small contingent of purists are dogmatic about the subject. One of these is Adam Kuban, who edits the Serious Eats burger blog A Hamburger Today. “A slider is something very specific,” he writes. “It is not just a mini hamburger. It’s a thin, thin slip of beef, cooked on a griddle with onions and pickles piled atop a patty.”
Kuban is describing the subgenre created by White Castle, the nation’s oldest chain of hamburger restaurants. Since 1921, the Midwest-based company has been turning out eccentric little burgers with square patties that measure just 2.5 inches on a side. They’re cooked on a griddle on top of a pile of rehydrated onions, which infuse the beef with onion-tinged steam, and they’re served on soft buns the size of dinner rolls.
White Castle’s burgers are unlike anyone else’s. Anyone else’s, that is, except Krystal’s. Rody Davenport Jr., the founder of the Chattanooga-based chain, studied White Castle restaurants closely before opening his own version in 1932 and selling a remarkably similar little, square burger.
The name “slider” was originally an insult, one of the many slang terms (like “gut busters,” “whitey one-bites,” and “belly bombers”) used to characterize White Castle’s and Krystal’s mini-burger. The sliding part refers to the ease with which they enter — and, perhaps, exit — one’s gastrointestinal system. White Castle resisted the name for years, but in 1993 they caved to popular usage and renamed their burgers “Slyders,” changing the spelling so they could trademark it. I’ve been aggressively lobbying Krystal to follow suit and adopt Belly Bombers®, but for now they’re sticking with “The Famous Krystal” and aren’t returning my calls.
Take a tour of Charleston restaurants and you can see how the term has evolved in recent years.
Sesame in North Charleston is a leading example of the “sliders are just mini-burgers” school. Well-noted for its freshly-ground hamburgers, Sesame also has a slider plate ($7) that’s designed “for the person that can’t decide,” letting you choose any three varieties from their expansive burger menu. You can have a South Carolina (with house-made pimiento cheese), an Al’s Famous (guacamole and chipotle sour cream), and an All-American (tomatoes and Tillamook cheddar) all on one plate. There’s a two-inch thick patty, and you can order the fresh ground beef cooked to whatever temperature you like. The soft bun is not toasted or steamed or heated in any way. They’re just like Sesame’s full-size gourmet burgers, only smaller.
But, these mini-burgers are a long way from the classic slider. Charlestonians can be forgiven if they aren’t familiar with the style. Tennessee is the furthest south White Castle has made it, and to eat a Krystal you’d have to drive up to Murrell’s Inlet or down to Savannah. But, you can find a close approximation with the Slammin’ Sliders at one of the area’s Wild Wing Cafés.
These little beauties come four to a basket and have thin, square patties and soft buns that are buttered then toasted. Sautéed onions and melted cheddar are layered inside, and, for some reason, a single pickle slice is speared on top of the bun with a toothpick. Tuck the pickle inside where it belongs, and you can sample the true slider experience.
That experience is a nuanced blend of textures and flavors. The dinner roll-like bun is soft and tender, but where it’s toasted, you get little bits of crispiness. The thin patty doesn’t have the same chewy resistance as a thick, grilled burger. Instead, it melds with the cheese and the soft sautéed onions, while the pickle slice offers a crisp contrast that brings everything together.
It’s this nuance that makes sliders something much more than just a small burger, and it’s enough to convince me that those guys serving up shrunken-down versions of the regular menu burger just don’t get it.
But I’m far from a purist. While helping me research sliders at Wild Wing Café, my wife got to chatting with our waiter and discovered that they were both from the Chattanooga area. This led to long expositions on how brilliant Krystal burgers are, how shameful it is that there are no Krystals in Charleston, and then long, complicated tales of Krystal burgers eaten in the past, with most of the stories beginning with large quantities of beer being consumed.
Suddenly, I understood the fanaticism of slider purists like Adam Kuban. It’s less about the food itself than it is about memory: deep-seated patterns established during impressionable teenage years when trips to White Castle or Krystal for a sackful of those bizarre little burgers were formative events.
But should that constrain those of us who grew up where burgers were thick and round? Plenty of Charleston restaurateurs think not.
Mt. Pleasant’s Boulevard Diner serves up crab cake sliders, and out at Fat Hen on Johns Island the bar menu includes sliders made from barbecued beef brisket topped with blue cheese and bacon coleslaw. At Daniel Island Grille, the Angus beef sliders share the menu with pulled pork sliders ($8): slow-cooked Boston butt with barbecue sauce served on the same flour-dusted rolls with pickles and coleslaw on the side. Even Wild Wing, the home of the most authentic sliders in town, also offers a full slate of variations that include meatball, blackened chicken, and even mini slider-like hotdogs.
At Pearlz Oyster Bar, the seafood sliders ($10) offer three intriguing variations. There’s a wasabi tuna burger, a crab cake slider with a tomato slice and grainy mustard, and a mini shrimp burger with a tasty remoulade sauce, all complemented by a pile of fresh-made, crispy chips. But, how slider-like are they?
For starters, they’re built on round, spherical rolls and held together by thick wooden spears. The components of each tiny sandwich are too distinct: the thick buns make things far too bready, and while the shrimp burger and the crab cake are quite scrumptious, they stand out as separate flavors and don’t blend in with the rest of the ingredients. They’re nice little seafood sandwiches, but they aren’t sliders.
The problem is with the proportions. As long as the essential lessons about contrasting textures and balanced proportions are followed, any number of creative combinations can proudly bear the slider name.
Take the “almost famous” duck club sliders ($7) at Voodoo Tiki Bar & Lounge. These should soon be completely famous, since they prove that the slider form, properly executed, can be extended to just about any ingredients. The Hawaiian dinner rolls give the gooey softness that is necessary, but the toasted outside adds in just the right measure of crispiness. The bun’s contents — duck confit, smoked cheddar cheese, bacon, lettuce, tomato, onion, and garlic aioli — are present in the right modest proportions.
Pick one up, give it a squeeze to moosh everything together, then take a bite. Your teeth sink into the sweet, soft roll, then you hit the crisp toasted edges, then you get a big burst of salty, crunchy, and chewy duck confit and bacon.
The purists may kvetch, but I don’t care. I’m putting my foot down and declaring that these sliders are the real thing.