Krystal vs. White Castle: Head-to-Head Burger BattleBy Todd • Jul 25th, 2010 • Category: Burger Blog
Nashville. The capital of Tennessee, the center of the country music universe. Home of the Grand Ole Opry, with a downtown entertainment district full of enough neon-lit nightlife to earn it the nickname “Nashvegas.” For sports nuts, there’s the NFL’s Titans, the NHL’s Predators, and Vanderbilt University of the SEC. Fan of road food? It’s worth a pilgrimage to Prince’s, where they serve up a diabolically-spicy local specialty called, simply, “hot chicken.” But for cheeseburger connoisseurs, Nashville quietly holds another unique distinction.
White Castle, inventors of the slyder, was the very first hamburger chain, born in Wichita in 1921. Krystal began in Chattanooga 11 years later. Ever since, the two chains have drawn their own version of the Mason-Dixon Line, marking and sticking to their respective territories with very little overlap. White Castle can be found in 11 Midwestern and Northern states; Krystal in 12 throughout the South. The only two states where you can find both? Kentucky and Tennessee. And in Nashville is the spot where the two are closer together than perhaps anywhere else on earth.
That White Castle is on the northeast corner of West Trinity Lane and Dickerson Pike. Just behind the big sign, there’s a Krystal on the southeast corner of the same intersection. 315 feet apart. If the White Castle is home plate of a typical baseball stadium, that Krystal is closer than the left field warning track.
On a recent road trip, I found myself zipping up I-65, with this gastronomic ground zero less than half a mile off Exit 87. At lunchtime. Obviously, the burger gods were demanding a slyder showdown.
Plenty of folks have tried both burger brands, with favoritism usually falling on the side of the chain you grew up with. I, too, brought my own prejudice to this slyder street fight; I grew up in Indiana, where White Castles rule and Krystals are seen as inferior knock-offs. But what would happen when I bought both fresh and staged a side-by-side square-off with an open mind? My wife took the wheel and I set out to crown a mini-cheebie champ.
First, some compare-and-contrast. Four Krystals with cheese cost me $3.64 before tax, 91 cents apiece. Four White Castles rang up at $3.20, or 80 cents each. A slight cost advantage: White Castle. Both slyders are topped with cheese, pickles, and the all-important onions… but Krystal adds mustard. (Maybe that’s what the 11 extra pennies pay for.) Toppings: minor advantage Krystal.
I didn’t get out a tape measure, but the dimensions seemed to be identical. Size: even Steven. My wife complained that the Krystals stunk up the minivan, but since I bought those first, I can’t say for sure that the White Castles wouldn’t have done the same. Aroma winner: undetermined.
Then it was time to dig in. The White Castles tasted exactly as I remembered. There’s a sweetness in there somewhere that I didn’t detect in the Krystals. Maybe it’s something they do at the Castle, maybe Krystal’s mustard mutes the sensation and creates a tangier taste. The beef seemed remarkably similar, the cheese was practically interchangeable, and the onions were hardly different at all. (I picked off the pickles on both slyders.) But, oh baby, the buns!
White Castle’s bun is very light and airy. But it feels like it might just disintegrate if you look at it wrong. The impression I got was that it’s more air than bread. Krystal’s bun, however, had a noticeably dense squishiness to it. Again, very soft, but with substance. Krystal’s bun brought its own taste and texture to the party, a vast improvement over its Northern counterpart.
In the end, and in a surprise I didn’t expect, I have to give the nod to Krystal. It felt traitorous to make such an admission, one that may get me shunned for life back home. But given a choice between the two, based strictly on “better burger,” I’d have to go with Krystal. But then I remembered… there’s only a small handful of people who are ever faced with a strict either-or, one-or-the-other choice when it comes to the two famed chains. Visiting the Midwest, I can enjoy a White Castle and reminisce about late-night slyder runs. Back in the South, I can chow down on its Southern (and in my mind) tastier cousin… and they never have to know about the other one ever again. Maybe it’s better that the two are so rarely found in the same place.
And on a related note, if you do ever find yourself at the corner of West Trinity Lane and Dickerson Pike in Nashville… at lunchtime… with a growl in your tummy and a few bucks in your pocket… a word of advice. Eating 4 White Castle slyders and 4 Krystals in one sitting is NOT recommended. It was North-versus-South all over again in my colon for the rest of the day. Now I know why Southerners delicately refer to the Civil War as “The Great Unpleasantness.”