Wednesday, September 21, 2011

White Rose System: still satisfying after all these years

My lack of direction on the Edison Information Trail continued as I headed toward lunch. You see, I figured that since I was already so close to Route 27 in Middlesex County, I'd continue south toward Highland Park and make a detour to the White Rose System.

It's not normally a difficult trip. Sure, there's a point in Metuchen where 27 makes a sharp 90 degree turn, but I've done it dozens of times. It shouldn't be a problem.

The key word there is "shouldn't." For some reason unbeknownst to me (bad gyroscope? Mercury retrograde?) I made a wrong turn and somehow ended up on New Durham Road. This isn't good. My GPS is on the blink and the map was no help because I didn't have my reading glasses (danged presbyopia!). I was left to my innate sense of direction, which was suspect at the time, and a bit of good luck.

The gods must have been smiling down on me, because I found myself back on 27 after five or ten minutes of driving through an unfamiliar part of Edison. From there I got down to Highland Park, did the appropriate flipdoodle turn to get to Woodbridge Avenue, and I was at the System.

The White Rose System, for the uninitiated, is a classic greasy spoon with unbelievably good burgers. It's the late-night bellybuster of choice for generations of Rutgers students, past and present, and is steeped in legend. Depending on what you choose to believe, the guys behind the counter could be convicts on a work-release program and shackled together behind the counter. I never believed it, but the fact that they always seemed to be stationed close to each other at the grill and register did give the story the tinge of truth. I really didn't care as long as they kept up their usual pace: having my order ready and taking my payment two seconds after I got the words out of my mouth. The place is open 24 hours (or 6 a.m. to 6 a.m. Monday through Sunday, if you read the hours on the door) and as with most places like that, it draws its share of characters, from working joes to blitzed frat boys, depending on the time of day.

Back when I was in school, it looked like a beat-up classic diner, complete with the sign on the front reading


to which some wag appended the R in the proper place. Rumor had it that the sign had been painted over several times, with the same misspelling each time. Today, the place looks a bit tidier, and they've gotten rid of that old sign. 

The menu has also changed, with some healthier options to the classic hamburgers and fries. When I was there, a young couple was splitting a large slice of carrot cake, which would have been unheard of back in the day. My faith was restored when the counter guy served a good helping of scrambled eggs and Taylor ham to one of the dine-in customers.

I couldn't give you any details on the healthy choices because I didn't need to look at the menu. I ordered my usual:  California cheeseburger, fries and a diet Pepsi. Service was a little slower than I was accustomed to, but the meal was ready in a reasonable amount of time. Rather than eating in the joint -- it was always too crowded to do that when I was at Rutgers -- I stayed with my personal tradition and brought it to the car. There's just something about that aroma drifting about the cabin.

I've been going to a more convenient White Rose in Roselle, and while their Cali cheeseburgers are very good, I was wondering how the two would compare. (There are a few White Roses in central Jersey, all independently run, with varying menus.) The Highland Park burger is still better, maybe a little heftier, and soaks the bun just right. I'm smiling now, just thinking about it. The fries come in a generously sized paper sack and are straight cut and thick rather than the crinkle-cut I recall, but they still stand up well against the ketchup the counter guy had squirted onto them for me. 

It's good to know that even when things change, they can remain largely the same. They may have cleaned up the outside of the joint and added to the menu, but it's mostly the food I remember. The taste hasn't changed a bit. All in all, it's a good lunch, even if my arteries will be clogged for a week. 

Oh, and I made a salad for dinner.

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