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 Hunter House Hamburgers, in downtown Birmingham, is busy year-round but draws especially large crowds during the annual Woodward Dream Cruise.

Hunter House Hamburgers, in downtown Birmingham, is busy year-round but draws especially large crowds during the annual Woodward Dream Cruise.

Photo by Tiffany Esshaki

Slide in for the original

Around here, sliders aren’t a food — they’re a philosophy

By: Tiffany Esshaki | C&G Newspapers | Published January 14, 2020

 The culinary crew at Travis Coffee Shop, in St. Clair Shores, makes each slider to order to  ensure freshness.

The culinary crew at Travis Coffee Shop, in St. Clair Shores, makes each slider to order to ensure freshness.

Photo by Deb Jacques

 Mike McAdory, the co-owner of Travis Coffee Shop, in St. Clair Shores, said the restaurant has been in his family for more than half a century.

Mike McAdory, the co-owner of Travis Coffee Shop, in St. Clair Shores, said the restaurant has been in his family for more than half a century.

Photo by Deb Jacques

METRO DETROIT — Now that it’s mid-January, a lot of folks have already fallen off the New Year’s resolution bandwagon. If your constitution is stronger than that, and you’re still motivated to get fit and eat healthier in 2020, that’s impressive. Well done.

But this story is not for you.

This is for the metro Detroiters who know there’s a bit of heaven to be found in each bite of the tiny-onioned, soft, steamy, somewhat glossy little treasures known as sliders.

The burgers are different from your regular hamburgers because the beef itself is more of a smushed ball than a true patty. Then the condiments — that’s ketchup, mustard, pickles, onions, of course, and a slice of cheese, if you’re so bold — and a bun are put onto the burger while it’s still on the grill, letting the flavors intertwine while the bun gets steamed to squishy perfection.

While sliders hail from White Manna, New Jersey, Detroit has truly perfected the art, like so many other comfort food staples — we’re looking at you, deep dish pizza and coney dogs.

“You know, they’re tasty. And it’s a quick meal,” said Nick Wright, of Rochester Hills. “Detroit is a factory town, and you can come get a fast meal before or after a day shift or a night shift.”

Wright grabs a ride with his sister, Cecilia Saylor, of Waterford, on a regular basis to make the trip south to Detroit to visit the Veterans Affairs center. The two look forward to the trek because, on the way back, they stop at Hunter House Hamburgers in downtown Birmingham.

“I remember every Sunday morning in Detroit, I would sit in one of these places near my house with a cup of coffee and the newspaper and three sliders,” Wright recalled while he sat at the Hunter House counter enjoying two burgers and a side of fries. “They look pretty much the same. The atmosphere takes you back. That’s a big part of it. But really, I think it’s the onions. They’re addicting.”

“It’s an odd duck,” Saylor said of the classic décor inside the original 1950s white pillbox-style diner on Woodward Avenue. “It’s the best odd duck around.”

The environment is nearly as important to the slider experience as the burger itself, according to Kelly Cobb, the co-owner of Hunter House. It’s a classic recipe, not to be modified.

“I grew up at Hunter House. I’m the third generation in just my family operating the store,” Cobb said. “I love the smiles from customers and regulars who consider Hunter House part of their community. And I love hearing the endless stories from customers about their Hunter House experience from decades ago.”

The story is the same across town at Travis Coffee Shop in St. Clair Shores. Co-owner Mike McAdory said the slider scene just wouldn’t be the same without interactions between the staff and regulars.

“We call them counter critters,” McAdory said with a laugh. “But people come from all over to try our sliders. So I’d say the business is a lot of regulars and a lot of people who heard about us from someone.”

A little star power doesn’t hurt either. McAdory said Travis Coffee Shop saw a big boost in business after “Full House” sitcom star and St. Clair Shores native Dave Coulier said he frequents the diner when he’s back in town.

“Back when I was born, he lived two houses down from me on Lange Street. His father still lives there, and (Coulier) still comes in and gets some burgers for his dad,” he said.

For those regulars, the routine is as comforting as the slider itself. Travis Coffee Shop, which has been around since 1968, opens each morning at 5 a.m. After a brief 10-day hiatus for the holidays, McAdory said, he had a line outside the shop before he even unlocked the door upon his return.

“We opened up right after the new year, and there they were,” he said. “A lot of times it’s the people working midnights who come in to get sliders. Hey, ‘breakfast of champions,’ I always tell them.”

Sure, sliders are a great way to refuel a blue-collar worker after a long shift. But there’s no real way to classify a slider customer, according to Danny Sutton, the co-owner of Greene’s Hamburgers in Farmington Hills.

“We’ve got normal city workers and CEOs coming in here,” he said. “We pride ourselves on the fact that absolutely everybody from every walk of life comes in. It’s a melting pot of people.”

That includes new generations of snackers who aren’t necessarily seeking out some warm fuzzies in the nostalgia of it all. Though that’s certainly important in the Detroit area, a place that celebrates its classic cars and old-time rock ’n’ roll with major enthusiasm.

Count John Gorzynski, 18, and Neil Wagner, 19, among those younger devotees. The two are 2019 grads of Bloomfield Hills High School, and when they came home from college to be with family for the holidays, the old friends had to carve out some time for a visit and a bite at Hunter House.

“We haven’t been here in a while,” said Gorzynski, a freshman at Bowling Green State University.

“It seems like the grill is so well worn,” said Wagner, a freshman at the University of Michigan. “(The burgers are) not too greasy; the meat isn’t overdone. They’re all-around amazing. ‘Umami’ is a really good way to describe it. The fries are amazing too.”

“And the lemonade,” Grozynski added. “There’s just something about it, I don’t know.”

Even though many can’t pin down why the taste of sliders is so fabulous, everyone from those in a corner office to those behind an assembly line can recognize quality when they taste it.

“Sliders are the softest and juiciest burgers you can eat,” Cobb said. “They only have a few ingredients, so it’s important to get them each right. Our meat is ground fresh daily, our buns are baked fresh daily, and we are constantly slicing sweet onions.”

“We get deliveries five days a week. That’s how you make a good product,” Sutton said.

Oh, and there’s one more thing that should be relatively vintage if you’re going to build a flavor-packed slider every time: the grill.

“You gotta keep your grill as long as you can. It’ll get seasoned over time,” Sutton said. “We just replaced our original grill four years ago, and that’s the only thing we’ve changed in 60 years.”

Some people seem to believe the term “slider” comes from the way the burgers are slid from one side of the grill to the other as they’re cooked and then steamed. Others insist it’s the way the soft buns let the burger slide right down your throat.

Does it matter? Probably not. The only thing that needs to be historically accurate about sliders is the decadent taste, the signature smell of grilled onions you can catch from down the street, and the simplicity of combining fresh food with decent folks to create a uniquely Detroit experience.

“Sliders are totally a Detroit thing. They’re in the cultural DNA of Detroiters,” Cobb explained. “Everywhere else, people think you’re talking about a miniature burger. Those are cute, but not sliders.”