When White Castle burgers made their debut on grocery store shelves a couple of decades back, this Mississippi girl was perplexed. The label said “White Castle” but I’d always known the wee burgers by another name, Krystal. These so-called White Castles featured the same sliver of meat sandwiched between a spongy square bun, complete with the diced onions and dill pickle slices.
Imagine my surprise when I learned that Krystal–a Southern staple since 1932–was a late-blooming imitator of America’s first fast-food burger chain. Apparently, everybody in the Northeast grew up eating White Castles, while those in the South ate Krystals. (I believe folks on the West coast learned about square hamburgers toward the end of the 20th century when they started appearing on appetizer menus as “sliders.” I should mention that this unfortunate name also originated at White Castle.)
My apologies to White Castle fans (who go by the name “cravers”), but my first-hand knowledge about The Original Slider® is limited to the frozen variety I last tasted back in the 90s. Krystals, however, hold a special place in my heart, much like an old friend with whom I cross paths a couple of times a decade.
My first memory of Krystal comes from the 70s when an elderly family friend (whose name I have forgotten) would occasionally pile a bunch of kids in the car and take us for burgers after church. On those days, I felt like I’d won the lottery (although I should substitute the word “bingo” seeing as Baptists consider gambling a sin). Not only did I get to skip out on eating yet another detestable Sunday pot roast, I got stickers! Note to kids today: Back then stickers were as rare as cassettes are today. (Let’s have a moment of silence to mourn the passing of mix tapes.)
Sometime during the 70’s Krystal decided to branch out into fried chicken, but it never really caught on, seeing as the logistics were far too complicated. If you wanted bird, you had to go to an annex around back for it. Not really worth the bother. Before I graduated high school, they’d abandoned this practice and now you can get fried chicken as part of the regular menu. Sort of. They’ve taken away the bone and added a bun. Plus, it’s called “chik’n,” which seems a bit dubious to me, but I’m nothing if not skeptical.
The late 80’s/early 90’s were my peak Krystal-loving years, seeing as I was a college student and Krystal was A. cheap and B. open after the bars close. I must confess, I still believe those to be Krystal’s key selling points.
So how does Krystal’s food taste? I hoped you’d never ask.
For tastebuds influenced by nostalgia and/or alcohol, Krystal burgers can be quite satisfying. The steamed buns offer the ideal pairing of spongy white bread and beef fat. The sliver of meat provides a canvas for Pollack-style spattering of diced onions and mustard embellished with a pickle chip. A slice of American cheese served slightly askew can be had for just a few nickels and dimes more.
Hot-off-the-grill Krystal burgers are best when eaten immediately. Like before your car pulls away from the drive thru. Seriously. If you must wait till you get home, I beseech you to treat the burgers to a quick trip in the microwave. To quote an old friend and Krystal-eating companion, “A cold Krystal is DEATH.”
I have fond memories of Krystal’s lemon pie, but they can’t be trusted, seeing as they were formed before I properly developed my dessert palate. It’s not that I’ve become a dessert snob so much as…Ok, yes it is.
Had I not been indoctrinated into Krystal eating as a child, I’m not sure what my opinion of the burgers would be. Certainly, I’ve had better tasting sliders, but they’re just not Krystal’s. The restaurant’s latest slogan sums it up: “Krystal®–Nothin’ Like It.” Unless you count White Castle.
Have you eaten at Krystal? White Castle? Both? How do they compare?
Photo Credits: Krystal Restaurant by Scott Beale, Flickr Creative Commons; Loose Change by Rich Renomeron, Flickr Creative Commons; Hot sign by Jonathon Coleman, Flickr Creative Commons.