“We don’t have this in my country”: White Castle

It’s hard to think of a restaurant chain that’s been given a bigger free kick than White Castle got in 2004.

Harold and Kumar go to White Castle was basically 88 minutes of glorifying the titular burger chain and the THC-induced cravings that compel its customers to go there. But as White Castle has yet to make a successful leap overseas, or even outside the eastern half of the United States, it remains to be seen whether it justifies the hype bestowed upon it.

What is it?

A somewhat low-end fast food chain that specializes in ‘sliders’:

Why is it a big deal?

Watching Harold and Kumar you might think it’s the second coming (sample dialogue: “just thinking about those tender little White Castle burgers with those little, itty-bitty grilled onions that just explode in your mouth like flavor crystals every time you bite into one”), but it’s actually pretty gross.

It is, however, historic. According to the New York Times, “Few people seem to realize that White Castle was America’s original fast-food chain: its first outlet opened in 1921, 27 years ahead of McDonald’s. Indeed, White Castle was the key player in turning the hamburger into America’s national meal.”

What does it mean to Americans?

Cheaper than cheap fast food. At $7.12 with tax for a basic slider meal, it’s pretty easy on the wallet, but you’d have to be really craving it to actually enjoy the experience (read: high).

The company seems somewhat aware of its reputation too. Since 1994, the franchise’s slogan has been ‘What You Crave’. Feel free to purchase yourself the “steam-grilled-on-a-bed-of-onions scented candle”, which also bears this slogan, to induce or quell such cravings.

The fact that White Castle restaurants seems to be found almost exclusively in the rougher parts of town reinforces its reputation as being at the lower end of the fast food spectrum. David Gerard Hogan, author of a book about the company called Selling ‘Em by the Sack, acknowledges that the company has made a living by “marketing to the urban working class”.

“Their restaurants were located in areas that eventually became the urban underclass, which leads to a lowbrow profile,” he said.

As such, it attracts a colourful clientele. My visit to a Brooklyn location saw me thoroughly entertained, as the only other customer rankled with the staff for no apparent reason, shouting: “That’s right, n****r, total waste of time. You fat motherf****r!

Where might I have seen it?

Duh, Harold and Kumar. Where have you been, dude?

So what should I get?

Nothing. Walk out of the restaurant and go get yourself a burrito or something.

The meat on the sliders appears and tastes excessively processed and the bun ends up soggy and almost slimy. The fries are okay, but it’s near-impossible to screw up fries.

When can I get it back home?

The company has failed to successfully expand its reach overseas, with locations in Singapore, Malaysia and Japan no longer in existence.

The Times attributed the company’s relatively meagre growth to the founder’s “steadfast refusal to franchise or take on debt”. The company itself claims being family-run helps it “maintain the trailblazing attitude which made us the first fast-food hamburger chain.” Which is altogether quite meaningless.

But relax, you’re not missing out.

“We don’t have this in my country”: Pinkberry

One of the best things about being an expat in the USA is finally getting to partake in all the things you’ve seen Americans eating/drinking/doing/talking about on television for so long, without having to wait for it to come to your country.

This week, we take a look at frozen yoghurt chain Pinkberry (less girly than it sounds).

What is it?

A frozen yoghurt chain that is quickly becoming the Starbucks of fro-yo.

Why is it a big deal?

Known as ‘Crackberry’ to its more ardent fans, the appeal seems to be that it just tastes better. Whereas the frozen yoghurt at most places is basically glorified ice cream, Pinkberry yoghurts have a renowned tartness that sets them apart. That and unlimited toppings.

What does it mean to Americans?

A delightfully different sugar fix that you’ll have to line up for. When the first Pinkberry was opened in 2005, the LA Times described it as “the taste that launched 1,000 parking tickets”, due to the lines that stretched outside the door at its West Hollywood location.

Where might I have seen it?

Pinkberry was a rather central plot point in an episode on the last season of Curb Your Enthusiasm, where Larry eats a portion intended for Jeff’s dying dog.

So what should I get?

Whatever you get, ask for lots of toppings. The fruit is cut fresh on-site, so I’d go for a medium original with kiwi fruit and strawberries or mango.

When can I get it back home?

Pinkberry seems to be expanding into unconventional markets. While Canada only has one location, there are already ten in the Middle East (of course it is a lot hotter there, so there’s probably more call for it). The UK got its first location just last month.

“We don’t have this in my country”: Chipotle

One of the best things about being an expat in the USA is finally getting to partake in all the things you’ve seen Americans eating/drinking/doing/talking about on television for so long, without having to wait for it to come to your country.

This week, we take a look at Chipotle Mexican Grill (or “Chipotes”, to those in the know).

What is it?

A wildly popular Tex-Mex chain with a menu of just four items (burritos, burrito bowls, tacos and salads) and a Henry Ford-esque assembly line used to put them together.

Why is it a big deal?

Chipotle’s hook is “food with integrity”, because they use naturally raised meat, organic produce, and dairy products without added hormones, most of which is sourced from local farmers. The company also boasts of preparing almost all of its food on-site, with no freezers or microwaves on the premises.

PR aside, though, I can personally report that Chipotle is delicious, inexpensive and satisfying.

What does it mean to Americans?

Fast food with a conscience. Chipotle is generally regarded as a healthy alternative to greasy burger joints, despite revelations that a fully-loaded burrito isn’t really any healthier than a Big Mac.

However, customers’ ability to customize their order in a more healthy manner was enough for Health.com to place Chipotle at number 6 on its ‘Top 10 Healthiest Fast Food Restaurants’ list.

Where might I have seen it?

Reality television seems to give Chipotle a solid plug: Ozzy and the gang were regular customers on The Osbournes. Viewers of Keeping up with the Kardashians (we know you’re out there somewhere, ‘fess up) will also have seen Kim and the gang chowing down on Chipotes.

In what was less of an endorsement, South Park did the chain no favours with its ‘Dead Celebrities’ episode from season 13:

So what should I get?

It’s hard to go past a pork carnitas burrito bowl with guacamole. Guac might be $1.95 extra, but it’s always worth getting.

Herbivores can opt for the just-as-good vegetarian burrito bowl, which comes with beans and free guac.

When can I get it back home?

Chipotle opened one restaurant in London in May 2010, but the company said earlier this year that expanding their US operations is the main focus for now.

There are two more locations in Toronto.