Ask my dad for his favorite restaurants, and he’d probably list off some classic chains in our area. Five Guys Burgers & Fries. Bahama Breeze. Local BBQs in Memphis. Some restaurants from his travels. But somewhere down the line, he’d say White Castle. He mentioned White Castle so much that, as a kid, the restaurant began to take on a mythical quality for me. What’s so good about White Castle anyway?
Any discussion of White Castle can’t be had without a discussion of Krystal.
Krystal is the Southern and, according to my dad, lesser equivalent of White Castle. White Castle occupies the northern half of the United States, and Krystal occupies the South. My dad grew up with White Castle in Columbus, Ohio, and I grew up with Krystal.
I used to volunteer as a juror at Orange County Teen Court for community service hours. I was a good student with college ambitions, so after going to the courthouse for my requisite 3 hours, my dad and I would stop by Krystal for dinner. He would order the cheeseburger sliders, and I would order the Chiks (their chicken slider) and my favorite, the chili cheese fries. These fries were mediocre in every way, from the lukewarm chili and barely melted cheese to the soggy fries and packet of salad-grade Ranch that I doused on it. It was perfect.
The area around Krystal was a little dodgy. The location (and the brand, for that matter) looked like it hadn’t been updated in decades. But it was perfect.
Some years later, I took my boyfriend to Krystal and we ordered that exact meal. I talked it up, telling him that my family loved to pick up 30+ Chiks for special occasion dinners at home, that the leftover sandwiches (of which there were always many) reheated well for lunch the next day, that the chili cheese fries were my absolute favorite, etc.
He takes a bite and remarks, probably in polite terms, that this food isn’t good. I take a bite, ponder, and find myself agreeing. Yeah, this food isn’t that good.
My chili cheese fries now seemed revolting. I had long recognized that the fries weren’t the best, but back then, the sum had been greater than their parts, and it was just a guilty pleasure anyway.
At some point during our meal, I think I tried to defend Krystal’s honor, but it was automatic, a muscle memory built up from years of practice. The magic was gone.
Enter: White Castle. I had been to a White Castle once before. On vacation with my family in 2015, I went to the location in Las Vegas, my dad eager to make a visit to one of his favorite chain restaurants even while in this wonderland city of unlimited choice.
However, I can’t remember the food. I had a massive nosebleed at the Las Vegas White Castle. The arid climate did not agree with my Florida sensibilities, so I spent most of the meal holding wads of tissue to my face. Strangers stared.
A few years later, though, White Castle finds its way back to me. I am recently unemployed and single, living alone in a new neighborhood in Chicago. I still haven’t developed a daily routine, preferring to stay up very late, wake up very early, snack in lieu of meals, and spend hours refreshing Twitter because I can. My cat is a wonderful conversationalist.
I went to White Castle for lunch yesterday, a weekday. I live about a 20 minute’s walk from the restaurant. The first time I saw it, I did a double take. White Castle had never been a place I just happened on, so I immediately texted my parents a picture. My dad told my mom to bring some back in her suitcase when she visited soon.
Here’s a rundown of what I ordered at White Castle:
Medium Drink ($2.19)
According to the sign on the window, White Castle had only recently acquired a Coke Freestyle machine. Surprisingly, this was more expensive than the food.
Cheese Fries ($2.19)
Classic, crispy crinkle-cut fries topped with the exact kind of nacho cheese you’d get at a fair, movie theater, or high school concession stand. It’s a good thing I dig that. Also, it’s cheap, which was the refrain that kept running through my mind as I continued my meal.
Chicken Breast with Cheese Slider ($1.79)
This is where the bargaining started. I took a bite and thought, this is okay! For the price. Good if you need cheap food. Good if you happen to be in the area and need cheap food. But it’s not as tasty as the McDonald’s McChicken, which is $1. And the barely melted American cheese slice is kind of offensive. But it’s cheap.
American Cheese Slider ($0.95)
The burger slider is the main attraction at White Castle, with its thin patty, American cheese, grilled onions, and crisp pickle. The regular slider, without the cheese, is famously only $0.77. But I don’t think you can make the argument that this is a good burger. My dad has even said that it’s “no Five Guys.” The patty was thin, bland, and soggy. It didn’t even resemble a burger, wasn’t in the same category. What’s the point?
Impossible Slider with Smoked Cheddar ($1.99)
The Impossible Slider is a new addition to the menu, having only been introduced in the past week. White Castle is the first fast food restaurant to get this vegan meat alternative, this meat that “bleeds.” It was one of the reasons why I had set out to White Castle that day. I wanted to see if it was worth the hype.
Verdict: Honestly, it’s better than the original slider. Better than the actual beef. The texture just feels meatier. Though a bit dry and bland, it has a chewiness not unlike a black bean patty. The slider also held a slice of smoked cheddar, which was a marked improvement over the American cheese.
I wouldn’t say this is good food. Upon looking at my notebook, I laughed because I had scrawled the comment “I feel greasy” at the bottom of the page right before leaving the restaurant. It’s not wholesome. There are better fast food options.
But—here it comes again—it’s cheap. Those prices are hard to beat.
And I can’t say that I didn’t feel a strong dose of nostalgia when I took my sandwiches out of their small, paper boxes, and stacked them on the tray like I was a kid.
I am a financially independent adult living more than a thousand miles from home, who cooks her own meals and takes herself out to restaurants as she pleases. I no longer need my parents to feed me. I rely on my own tastes to dictate what I eat.
But wasn’t that nice, at least a little bit? As a kid, I didn’t have a sense of shame or irony in relation to food. Food was food. I didn’t justify my enjoyment of greasy food with reasons like “it’s cheap,” “it’s my cheat day lol,” or “I deserve this.” I didn’t even have to think the meal was particularly good compared to other options. It was just there, and my parents had gotten it—for me.
I wish I could turn my brain off sometimes. I don’t want to dislike White Castle or Krystal. I don’t want to turn up my nose at them for being what they are or even make concessions like “being what they are.” Recognizing that is recognition that I’m an adult. Sometimes I don’t want that.
I’m going back to Orlando to visit my family next week, the first time since Christmas. I know my mom and dad read this blog, so I’ll go ahead and ask here: Can we go to Krystal and get some chicken sandwiches? Let’s get the chili cheese fries too. I know you don’t like them, but I do. They’re my favorite.