It's not exactly a thing of beauty. The ruthlessly efficient square meat patty is lost under the tile of tofu, and there's no lettuce or tomato to add color; just an orangey-brown skid mark of chile sauce under the bun. But the Spicy Sichuan Tofu Slider is delicious, the best thing White Castle has on the menu in Shanghai, and, in my opinion, among the tastiest fast food burgers ever.
I'm not the only one who likes it. According to Steve Foreman, Operations Service Manager at White Castle, "The two top sellers we have in China right now are the original cheese slider and the mapo tofu slider." (Another burger exclusive to White Castle's Chinese restaurants, the Sour Cherry Duck Slider, is just OK.)
Sichuan sauce has been in the news quite a bit lately, after Rick and Morty fans lost their minds over McDonald's discontinued-and-then-exhumed Mulan Szechuan Sauce, a product launched with the Disney film in 1998 and revived in a dismal marketing move after becoming a meme on the show. (Sichuan is the contemporary romanization of "Szechuan"; they both refer to the same thing—a province in the West of China).
White Castle has enjoyed free publicity in the past, too, most famously in Harold & Kumar Go to White Castle (2004) , an opportunity they were offered after Krispy Kreme passed. But unlike the Mulan sauce, the tofu slider is more meal than meme.
RECIPE: How to Make Mapo Doufu
Zoe Cai, who has lived in Shanghai all her life, says the tofu burger "tastes a bit like Lao Gan Ma [chile oil]," China's favourite Sichuan sauce. White Castle's version is modeled on traditional recipes using Sichuan chile bean paste, fermented black beans, and Sichuan peppercorns.
"It's a very familiar taste, which I like," Cai says.
She likens the burger to eating hot pot, not only because of the spicy sauce but because of the robust texture of the tofu.
That a hyper-industrialized burger chain—selling drive-thru burgers by the bag, as American as Henry Ford—created something so well-calibrated to Chinese tastes is a wonder of food science. And it's especially surprising because White Castle hasn't had a lot of experience outside the US.
There were forays into Singapore, Malaysia, Japan, and Mexico in the 80s and 90s, but they were relatively short-lived and didn't yield any new burgers. The two new restaurants in Shanghai, one on Maoming Road and one on Changning Road, are the chain's only extant locations outside America.
And with the Spicy Sichuan Tofu Burger, they've already created something more in keeping with local Chinese tastes than McDonald's, Burger King, or Carl's Jr. have in years. This burger is as inspired as KFC's Macanese egg tarts, and KFC have been in China since 1987.
Kim Bartley, Chief Marketing Officer at White Castle, says they worked with a local company, ClearVue Partners, to create the new burgers. "I think they were caught off guard with how willing we were to take risks with the menu."
According to Jason Poon, Senior Associate at ClearVue, "We were exploring the idea of creating a whole meal within a slider. We came up with ideas like a surf-and-turf slider and a spaghetti-and-meatballs slider. Mapo tofu seemed like a no-brainer, really."
But Foreman says that "no-brainer" prompted some puzzled discussions at headquarters in Ohio. "Why would you put a piece of tofu on a beef patty? Because here, tofu is a vegetarian dish."
Tofu in China isn't defamed by highly processed abominations like Tofurky slices and faux hot dogs, which are intended as substitutes for 'real' food (i.e., meat). It's served at most meals out, and in myriad ways: topped with crab roe, fried with dried fish, or under minced pork, garlic, and chiles.
"Another way of thinking about it is that instead of substituting meat for tofu, we were substituting the cheese component of the traditional cheeseburger," Poon says. "The relationship that Chinese people have with tofu is not unlike that of certain Western cultures and cheese, especially when it comes to the stinkier varieties!"
Substituting cheese for tofu and ditching the drive-thru windows in place of a delivery service are ways White Castle has adapted to China, but they've also kept some things the same. Unable to find an exact flavor match in China, they're importing onions and pickles from the States. They've also stuck with their cooking process, which was already a good cultural fit for China.
White Castle cooks first place onions on the griddle, then the meat patty, and then the bun on top. The steam that evaporates from the onions helps cook both the beef, and—while passing through five holes in the patty—the buns, making them distant relatives (or at least casual hookups) of soft Chinese breads like baozi and mantou.
White Castle's motto is "Bold Moves Since 1921", and one place they've certainly taken a risk is with the price. The tofu slider costs 15 RMB ($US 2.25), more than double the price of comparable burgers at White Castle in the US, and twice as much as a McDonald's hamburger in China. It's up there with another great fast food burger, the Filet-O-Fish (which costs 17 RMB).
That positioning is different to the US, where White Castle is fiercely affordable and the restaurants are open 24 hours, catering to people working night jobs to get by—or to support their artistic ambitions. "We're there for the starving artist in you," Bartley says. In China, White Castle is there for the upwardly mobile middle class.
That said, the biggest problem with the Spicy Sichuan Tofu Slider is not that it's a little pricey—this is a great burger, worth paying a little more for—but that it's exclusive to Shanghai. Looking ahead, Foreman says, "we're not limited to just Shanghai. Beijing is another interesting market—Hong Kong, Macau."
China may be a big part of White Castle's future, but what about the US, where this burger would be both delicious and novel? Will it appear on American menus?
According to Bartley, "Yes. We're just waiting for the recipes."
CORRECTION: A previous version of this article misstated the Senior Associate at ClearVue's name. His name is Jason Poon, not James Poon. MUNCHIES regrets the error.