One of the things I rather enjoy about the Detroit area is that the food scene still has a strong independent “slider” presence. Yeah, you know, sliders, those little hamburgers served on small greasy buns with the onions? Chances are, if you’ve had one recently, it was at White Castle (in the North) or Krystal (in the South). But in addition to these well known chains, there are still several places in the country (Hackensack, NJ, for example) where various independent operators and small chains are still churning out classic sliders, and doing it will a quality no longer seen at White Castle or Krystal. Detroit is one of these areas. Within the greater Detroit metro are are literally dozens of little slider shops, including Brayz (Hazel Park), Telway (Madison Heights and Detroit), Bates (Livonia and Farmington Hills), Bray’s (Westland), Greene’s (Farmington), Hunter House (Birmingham)… the list goes on. While I’ve long wished to do a “slider tour of Detroit” (ever since I did my review of Bates Hamburgers in Livonia way back in 2006), I haven’t yet been able to assemble the time and stomach space (and Costco-sized supply of antacid) that such a venture requires. But I have been trying to pick them off as opportunity allows, and a visit to the Detroit Zoo conveniently allowed us to duck over to adjacent Madison Heights to try Telway again.
First of all, there’s one thing I need to be clear about: a “slider” isn’t just a small burger, it’s actually a style of cooking. While the diminutive size of a typical slider is one of hallmarks of the style, it’s takes more than just a small patty. To be a proper slider, it needs to be cooked as a slider: a small patty, cooked on a griddle with copious amounts of onions, with the buns layed over it. The idea is that by cooking the beef with the onions, the steam from the onions helps good the patty, and infuses everything with onion flavor. The buns soak up all the oniony aroma… as well as much of the cooking grease, which is why these things are called sliders. If it wasn’t cooked this way, it wasn’t a slider, any more than a calzone is the same thing as stromboli. The preparation is different, and that difference is important.
For what it’s worth, I’m not alone in this belief either, you can read Adam Kuban’s most excellent treatise on this over on A Hamburger Today. A slider is a hamburger, but not all hamburgers, and certainly not all small hamburgers are slider. So if you are sitting there saying to yourself, “I don’t get what the deal is with sliders, they are just small hamburgers”, you’re missing the point. And so have all the restaurants and chefs that keep using and abusing that term to just mean “small sandwich.”
In any case, going to Telway is pretty much the embodiment of the classic slider joint. Built as an example of what I lovingly call “White Castle Knockoff” architecture (actually, I think Telway is a former White Tower, a former White Castle Imitator), it’s got the hallmarks of the style: the shiny white exterior, the large “Hamburger” sign, a stainless-steel-rich interior, a small counter, and the walk-up window in back. It’s got a bold color scheme (red at Telway, some other joints go for blue), Telway has a clear heritage back to a day when everyone was doing sliders. And, in a sort of culinary variation of the theory of Colonial Lag, most of these offshoots and imitators of the early slider pioneers are now doing it better than the places they were imitating.
As for the sliders themselves? Telway really does these the right way. Instead of making those little ridiculous “punched with five holes” pre-made meat discs like White Castle, a Telway slider starts with two things: a small lump of ground beef that gets pressed flat onto the grill (giving it a sear that many slider joints lack), and starting with fresh onions instead of dried. They cook them burger side down with the onions on top, and then flip the whole mess over afterward. When it’s almost don, the put the bun over it, and cover the mess with a towel. The last step here isn’t done most places, and the result of it is the perfect slider: greasy, moist, fresh bun; seared meat; crisp dill pickle; and sharp but sweet stringy onions. Really, these are about twice as good a your typical White Castle or Crystal, and I’ll even give them a notch over Bates (although not by much), and put them in the same general category as White Manna in New Jersey (another well-recognize slider stalwart). Seriously, if you are doing sliders, this is the way to do them.
Sometimes, there’s something to be said for tradition.