Detroit is a burger, pizza, and coney dog kinda town. Foie gras and the factory floor don’t mix. Hell, we’re more like the fattened, force-fed ducks that generously bequeath their livers to us than the type of people that consume foie gras at parties. Give us a keg of a beer and a trough, please.
It shouldn’t surprise you, then, that Metro Detroit is
hog cow heaven for lovers of old school white porcelain slider joints with stainless steel counters. It’s like we can relive Edward Hopper’s Nighthawks and Norman Rockwell’s The Runaway whenever we want. You know you’ve turned down the right street when the magical smell of grilled onions wafts over your car.
Suck it, New Jersey. We eat ’em by the sack here.
And in Detroit proper, there’s what I’ve taken to calling the “axis of sliders”, three slider spots that carry the quintessential DNA that makes our sliders so damn good: Motz’s, Telway, and Elmer’s. You can literally connect the three on a map with only a slight diagonal slant, the resulting north-south line running just parallel to Livernois Avenue, west of downtown. I consider it one of the main arteries of Detroit cuisine, coated in cholesterol but still a-flowin’ with greasy, cheap greatness.
Motz’s, occupying a tiny white brick building on Fort Street right across the street from the absurdly long Detroit Produce Terminal, is unarguably the nicest slider shop in Detroit. It’s clean. It’s warm. It’s friendly.
Of course, those qualities don’t always translate over to the food. We have tons of uninspiring Coney Islands that are as bland as pleasant. But, in this case, it’s an auspicious omen. You’ve hit the slop jackpot, my friend. Hop on one of the bar stools and enjoy the obesity-inducing ride.
Motz’s makes sliders according to time-honored tradition, followed by all legit Detroit slider palaces. To start, they plop a ball of choice-grade beef on a flat grill. Then, they flatten the meat into patties with a metal spatula and throw thin-sliced onions on top, flipping the result once for good measure. Finally, at the perfect moment, the buns are slapped on the grill, a white towel thrown on top of the whole mess to trap the steam, infusing the bread with all the wonderful aromas floating up from the grill.
Add ketchup, mustard, and pickles and your burger is ready.
Dig in. Try to eat only one. Go ahead, try. You can’t. It’s impossible. It’s Schrödinger’s cat.
There’s a reason Motz’s was written about by USA Today and is name-checked by none other than the other Motz, George Motz, the auter behind the documentary Hamburger America. Some say Motz’s sliders are kinda big for sliders, but if it Motz calls Motz’s a slider, then it’s a slider. End of discussion.
Telway on busy Michigan Avenue is another story, occupying a unique corner in Detroit’s own twilight zone, where it’s not right if it’s not a little off. The workers, a mostly embattled crew of long-timers that have been through some shit, man, run the place like a wonderfully detuned piano. The tiles, porcelain or otherwise, are grimy. The signs are faded. And the witty banter never, ever stops.
The cook says he’s the only one sane person he knows. The waitress tells him he doesn’t get out much. Customers throw sweat, kindhearted insults at the staff and the staff punches back in turn with the perfect one-liners. It’s a skit out of a demented version of I Love Lucy.
Don’t worry, though – the food is still top notch. In fact, I think Telway theoretically offers up a better product than Motz’s, more oniony and greasier in all the ways you ever wanted a slider to be oniony and greasy. The constant stream of burger enthusiasts at the carryout window, a diverse crowd of businessmen, hookers, and rugged soccer moms, attests to Telway’s nearly universal appeal.
There are only two small flaws I can think off at Telway, two insignificant criticisms I just have to make. One: the cooks can be stingy, the patties so potholed and pathetic that a cheeseburger ends up tasting like a patty melt. Two: the sliders aren’t always fresh. I’ve watched cooks pull burgers out from under towels older than the Shroud of Turin, and let me tell you, Telway ain’t exactly fine wine.
Elmer’s has the prototypical look of a Detroit slider palace. Yes, such places are called palaces. As you can sorta see in the dim light, Elmer’s has a separate entrance and waiting area for carryout.
Neither is Elmer’s. On Chicago Street on Detroit’s far west side, it’s in a struggling neighborhood. Not that the neighborhoods around Motz’s and Telway are beautiful, gated communities, but only Elmer’s has encased its grill area entirely in thick, bulletproof glass. Yes, you read that right – bulletproof glass. They hand off your sliders to you like it’s bottom shelf whiskey at the liquor store.
No doubt it detracts from the ambiance, but you’re there for the food, right? And Elmer’s serves up competent fare, the Christoph Waltz of the axis of sliders – not the star per se, but as much as you couldn’t have Inglorious Basterds and Django without Waltz, you can’t have Detroit sliders without Elmer’s.
Elmer’s always cooks to order, and from my experience, its sliders are bit beefier than the competitors’, and for only another quarter or two extra. When the stars align and the grease is true, it can run neck-and-neck with the “posh” joints to its south, even if it’s not quite up to snuff on an average day.
Make sure to order a double-double coffee (two creams, two sugars) if you ever visit, by the way. Detroiters are crazy about their “double-doubles” for some reason, and Elmer’s secretly serves up a well-balanced brew.
OK, OK – I get it. That shiny White Castle down the street is nice and convenient, and you don’t deal with bulletproof glass. But it don’t got soul. Motz’s, Telway, and Elmer’s do.