The Road To Hackensack: A White Manna Conversion

By Davisha Dadone

Please welcome Davisha Dadone to the table. She will be contributing both words and illustrations to Beef Aficionado. Here she tells of the start of the journey that got her here….

White Manna, Hackensack NJ, 1997.

Today was a good day to change everything.

I’d been a vegetarian for twelve years; but being an idealistic teenager with vegetarian parents made it easy. Fast forward twelve years, and I am a busy adult who doesn’t have elaborate salads and stir-fries waiting for me when I get home; I have become what I refer to as a ‘pizza vegetarian’. Back in the nineties, not a lot of healthy and fast vegetarian options were readily available. If I had time to make food myself it was pasta, or a box of macaroni and cheese.

I was starved.

My then-boyfriend Sean was an unapologetic meat-eater, and today was the day that he’d been talking about for weeks, a visit to White Manna!! He’d always gone on about these hamburgers, about how perfect they were, so juicy, so fresh…talk that would’ve normally been lost on a dedicated vegetarian…but I’d been having dreams about cheeseburgers for months now, and the suspense was killing me. We were headed there to pick up a White Manna t-shirt that they had actually hung up for several days, long enough for the cotton to become completely infused with the aroma of the White Manna legend – a gift for a friend who’d moved away.

I was a resolute vegetarian, I didn’t cheat or bend the rules, but something had to change. I figured that me and this White Manna, we had a High Noon moment coming and even I wasn’t sure who would win.

We drove out to the Hackensack location, the oft-debated superior of the two White Mannas. Much eye-rolling on my part at this distinction, because really, it’s a little cheeseburger – I remembered what White Castle tasted like.

I know, I know…

I marveled at the downright ridiculous proportions of this ‘restaurant’ that had received so much regale. How on Earth anyone could have opened a place this small was beyond me, but even further beyond me was the irrefutable fact that not only had it opened with success in 1946, it did well enough to outlast the hordes of imitators that had followed. I eyed the gleaming aluminum siding and bleak surroundings with apprehension; what goes on here?

And then I walked in.

The central ‘kitchen’ of a griddle and a single machine of a cook was amusing but the sheer efficiency was not. Fascinated by the sight and smells of one man churning out sliders by the dozen, I took a seat and watched for several minutes. I could see through a doorway to the back room, a pile of ground beef there, so fresh that it gleamed red, was constantly denuded in the many trips back to it to fill the busy griddle in front. Each patty was measured and formed by hand on its way to the griddle. The circus of onions, cheese, buns and meat that were seemingly becoming cheeseburgers midair was so highly entertaining that I’d almost forgotten that I couldn’t have one.

I took my NYC Hotdog Vendor compromise and asked for a bun with pickles, cheese, and onions. That potato roll, the sweetness… the tanginess of the pickle, the synthetic joyous ooze of American cheese, the crunch of fresh partly caramelized onions….twelve years of restraint suddenly seemed frivolous. I hear myself saying “I must have a cheeseburger. Now”

Sean is confused, he’d assumed that I was immune. I assure him that I am not, and I will have cheeseburgers now. Now. He tries to tell me that I’ll probably have a stomachache, besides the regret that must follow breaking a twelve-year fast. I will have neither a stomachache nor regret, and I will have cheeseburgers. Five. With extra pickles.

The cook, Sean, and even the current diners all watched as I put down five perfectly prepared sliders in about eight minutes.

Everything changed in those few minutes, and to this day they are still some of the best cheeseburgers I’ve had in my life. I’ll never forget how it all came together in a way that was so simple, so revelatory to someone who’d been trying to fake this for twelve years. The fresh meat, cooked to perfection on that steaming griddle, the onions aplenty, and that potato roll…I’d never had a Potato Roll before, but have rarely chosen anything else for hamburgers since. There’s something special about the density and springiness of it,  the way it absorbs the flavor of the meat without losing any of its own that makes it uniquely qualified for this mouth-punch of a cheeseburger. Even though I prefer my beef rare, that juicy little burger didn’t need anything different about it.

Sometimes, change is good.

White Manna
358 River St  Hackensack, NJ 07601
(201) 342-0914

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