"What's that?" she asked.
"You know, sliders — mini-hamburgers."
She was perplexed as to why anyone would want a reduced-size burger. I said that by SliderBarCafe standards, anything on a miniature bun qualified as a slider: beef, lamb, chicken, sausage, vegetables, even bacon and eggs.
She changed the subject.
SliderBarCafe is worth seeking out, though, whether you're a foodie or not. It's an updated, quasi-fast-food, breakfast and burger emporium, open since late March in downtown Palo Alto.
SliderBar owes its existence to the White Castle fast-food hamburger chain, where the notion of sliders started. The burgers were originally dubbed "slyders" by White Castle in the 1920s. According to urban legend, the term "slyder" referred to its greasy nature that allowed it to slide down the esophagus with ease.
SliderBarCafe in Palo Alto is changing those perceptions and has upped the ante considerably.
While many bars and grills have added trendy sliders to their menus, they are usually treated as appetizers or bar food. SliderBarCafe, though, has turned sliders into a near gastronomic art form. The beef comes from Niman Ranch, which specializes in antibiotic- and hormone-free, vegetarian-fed animals. There are no deep-fat fryers in the SliderBar kitchen: Onion rings, chicken wings and french fries are oven-baked.
Owner Ashwani Dhawan said: "Even our coffee is organic. We buy from the same roaster that supplies Thomas Keller's French Laundry."
Dhawan, who also owns Mantra, the California-Indian fusion restaurant on Palo Alto's Emerson Street, said that with his new venture, he wanted "something simpler, more mainstream ... something with smaller portions. ... I wanted the customer to be able to match hunger with portion size."
Yet I over-ordered on my first foray into SliderBar, choosing three American classic sliders and fries ($2.89 for one, $5.49 for two, $7.49 for three). Three was one too many for my appetite but I ate them all anyway. The sliders were bigger than the dollhouse-sized morsels I had imagined.
The presentation conjured memories of Arnold's Drive-In on "Happy Days." The picture-perfect burgers — with shredded lettuce, slices of tomato and onion with a slather of mayo — sat on an unadorned oblong plate. No disappointment in the flavor, either. The beef was coarser than in lesser grades of hamburger, and there was no greasy slider effect either. Those little guys were for chewing and enjoying.
The side of hot oven fries ($1.79) was a generous portion of non-greasy yet crispy strips of sliced potato, thicker than shoestrings and as tasty as any deep-fried potato. Ketchup and garlic sauce were available as condiments. The classic with fries was my favorite combination.
On subsequent visits, I tried other options, reluctantly. The vegetarian slider ($2.49) came on a multigrain bun. The patty consisted of garbanzo beans, potatoes, onions, sunflower seeds and bell peppers. Spinach, caramelized onions, bell peppers and a roasted garlic sauce topped the slider.
It was a worthy sandwich with loads of flavor. The only drawback was that it was crumbly and deconstructed faster than I could eat it.
The Mediterranean slider ($3.69) was a Niman Ranch natural lamb patty that had garlic and ginger mixed into it. The multigrain bun enveloped crumbled blue cheese, olives, artichoke hearts, tomato, red onion and a garlic sauce that sat atop the lamb patty. There was a lot going on in one smallish slider, but the flavors sang.
The amped-up chicken slider ($2.99) also had garlic and gingery elements and was topped with avocado, lettuce, tomato and chipotle sauce. While not overly spicy, this was not your average Chicken Little.
Another favorite was the plump Italian sausage slider dog ($3.29). The bun was interesting: not quite a hot dog bun or pita bread, but more than a slice of white bread. The wrapper was pocketed and held the spicy sausage, caramelized onions, relish, mayo and ketchup intact.
SliderBar makes soups as well; a bowl is $4.49. But you can also get just a little warmer-upper, with a "shot" of soup for 99 cents. One day, mushroom was the soup du jour. The shot was more than a traditional one-and-a-half-ounce jigger; it was several soupspoons' worth, with sliced mushrooms afloat. The soup was tangy and rich.
SliderBar offers a kids' menu and a variety of salads in addition to all-day breakfast sliders. The classic American breakfast slider ($1.99) is made up of English muffin, fried egg, bacon and American cheese. Other breakfast options are Mediterranean, California and Italian breakfast sliders.
Beverages include a large variety of organic coffees and teas as well as iced coffees, yogurt shakes, Italian sodas and traditional fountain colas. There are 16 wines available by the glass or bottle. Prices range from $2.99 per glass to $39.99 for a bottle of decent French Burgundy. Eight beers are available by the pint or pitcher ($2.99-$9.99).
Overall, SliderBarCafe provides a more healthful and sustainable approach to traditional American fast-food fare, a higher quality than chains dare approach. That rates an A-plus in my book.
324 University Ave.