the underground gourmet

The HiHi System

New York’s foremost regional-food geeks revive the criminally underrepresented slider.

Photo: Melissa Hom
Photo: Melissa Hom

One thing we’ve learned from the crippling effect the coronavirus has had on the hospitality industry is that when a shuttered restaurant reopens — if it’s lucky and brave and crazy enough to reopen — it’s not going to be quite the same place you remember. Maybe it’s shifted to takeout only, or the menu’s former ambition has been reined in, or its entire identity has morphed into something strange and new. In the case of Boerum Hill’s HiHi Room, which resumed operations in late June, the changes have been subtle — new chef; new, more casual, comfort-food-y menu; new focus on delivery and takeout. What’s monumental, though, at least for the city’s hamburger connoisseurs, is that the HiHi Room is now home to a spot-on slider that’s not just a perfectly reverse-engineered version of a style many consider the Ur-burger but also one of the best new burgers in town, period.

Yes, the patty clocks in at a mere two ounces, but that’s standard procedure; no sentient being has ever stopped at a single slider (you get two per $10 order here). All genuine sliders are mini, but not all mini-burgers are sliders. That’s rule No. 1 of this oft-misunderstood, locally scarce hamburger category (before HiHi, we hadn’t had a good one since burger bar Mark left the East Village three years ago). The other commandments allow for some wiggle room: The burgers are typically smashed on the griddle, draped with onions, and flipped over, onion side down. Some form of steam heat (generated from the onions’ moisture content combined with the leaking burger juices) finishes cooking the meat, gluing it to the processed American cheese and squishy buns that get stacked on top. There are sometimes (but not always) pickles and mustard involved, too, but little else. That is the Book of Sliders, as writ small in its historical stomping grounds of Detroit and certain observant hamlets of New Jersey, not to mention the cradle of slider civilization, and original fast-food chain, White Castle. (It was White Castle, born in Wichita in 1921, that pioneered the practice of calling its modus operandi “the system,” a quaint tradition that HiHi continues.)

The HiHi Room has taken a different path to slider greatness than its predecessors, one forged on Zoom during quarantine when owners Matt Ross and Eric Finkelstein conferred with new chef Heather Fuller, late of Underground Gourmet favorite Madcap Cafe, on the restaurant’s new, downscaled, delivery-friendly menu. Sliders had always been, if not the, then at least a holy grail of Ross and Finkelstein’s, whose obsession with iconic American foodstuffs knows no bounds. As the owners of Court Street Grocers, they’ve devoted much of the past decade to sourcing obscure products and selling best-in-class versions of familiar sandwiches. Together, they set out to develop what Finkelstein calls a hybrid technique based on prior recon of Detroit, the city he deems America’s “capital of sliders.”

Because the HiHi Room isn’t a vintage diner or a greasy spoon, it lacked the requisite slider-making infrastructure. Through much trial and error, the team jury-rigged a contraption that would achieve the same outcome as such slider meccas as the Telway in Detroit and Hackensack’s White Manna. Fuller fills a hotel pan with beef stock and places over it a perforated pan holding a thick bed of onions partly caramelized in bouillon and butter. Once a patty has been griddle-seared on one side, she flips it, crowns it with a slice of cheese and the top of the bun, then deposits it over the allium swamp and closes the lid, allowing the steam to permeate the burger and meld its constituent parts into a glorious morsel of meat and goo. The bottom bun gets butter-toasted on the griddle and garnished with mustard, relish, and a pickle before the two halves come together in perfect slider harmony.

Although Fuller has never worshipped at the slider shrines of Detroit or New Jersey, her past stints at Ssäm Bar and Má Pêche have given her a useful frame of reference. “I do liken it to the pork-bun station at Momofuku,” she says of HiHi’s bustling slider setup. “You know, the bun is steamed, and you really want that pillowy bite because it’s so luscious and delicious.” When confronted with neophytes trying to wrap their heads around the concept, she puts the food in a more readily grasped culinary context: “I just say, ‘It’s kinda like a pork bun, but a burger.’ ”

*This article appears in the August 17, 2020, issue of New York Magazine. Subscribe Now!

The HiHi Room Revives the Criminally Underrepresented Slider