Open: Mon-Thurs 6pm-4am Continuously from 6pm Fri-3am Mon.
Rating out of 10: Food: 7.5, Service: 8, Value: 6.5, Ambience: 6.5
It's Friday night and we've just paid $5 less for parking than we will for dinner.
Across the road from where it costs more to leave your car for an hour than it does to catch a mid-week bus to Hamilton, there is a sign painted on the footpath. An arrow, pointing pedestrians towards the bus stop for Remuera. The arrow is partly obscured by tomato. A huge round slice of tomato, smudgy with mayo and minus the ragged edge of the single bite its owner achieved before it plopped from a burger and landed on those instructions for bussing to an expensive suburb. Amateur. But at least we knew we were in the right place.
Before bao there were burgers. Before tacos there were toasties. Before them all - all those food trucks with their activated crumpets and sprouted smoothies - there was The White Lady.
The White Lady is an improbably long bus that serves burgers alongside a boarded-up strip of downtown Commerce St. According to its website, it's been in business since 1948, when "Pop" Washer first opened on Shortland St to cater to the six o'clock swill. Today it trades on its reputation as the country's oldest mobile food operation. There is nowhere to sit and the long aluminium counter is for pick-up and paying, not leaning, but it doesn't stop the punters.
An elderly woman in a lipstick-red raincoat has just stopped to read the menu. She is utterly delighted. "I didn't know this was still running. I used to come here as a teenager in the late 1950s."
How were the burgers back then? She shakes her head. "Burgers were a very new thing."
In fact, The White Lady didn't start flipping them until 1961. Today, there's 16 types on offer - from the Hawaiian, cheese and steak staples through to chicken aioli and a veggie deluxe. The latter is "deluxe" because it has a hash brown. If you're a vegetarian looking for falafel or tofu fillings, go somewhere else - the only concession to dietary restrictions here is an option to swap your bread bun for iceberg lettuce leaves.
The elderly woman is handing over $7 for a hot dog. We do the same. Wondrously white and processed on the outside, toasted just enough on the inside to stop fried onion seepage, the frankfurter skin snaps between my teeth like a saveloy at a 6-year-old's birthday party and oh-my-God-it's-delicious.
Fries will be another 10 minutes. They've just changed the oil and it's still heating up. To be fair, it's only 7pm. Peak chip is hours away.
A family of four orders burgers. A man gets tea in a takeaway milkshake cup. It is the longest tea in town. Another man comes back to clarify his order - two Hawaiians thanks. Not much appears to be a problem for the trio inside the truck that, on this Friday night, won't shut shop until 3am Monday. You know those people you see doing t'ai chi in public spaces? Imagine those people making toasted sandwiches. When they forget your caramel milkshake order, you're hardly going to get aggro.
Everything except the milkshake comes fast. It's in paper bags and paper cups. Bog-standard tomato sauce and mustard. There's nothing flash, but everything is super fresh and there's minimal grease. James couldn't get his mouth open wide enough for the $11.50 beetroot-filled "old school" (contains beetroot, obviously). A fried egg was to the pineapple, bacon and colby cheese deluxe beef burger as Krug is to caviar. Though, at $15 for the burger, you'd still be able to afford parking.
Sample fare: The Aucklander (300g scotch fillet) $22; The White Lady (100g scotch fillet and a beef pattie) $20; cheese burger $10.50; Hawaiian burger $10; hot dogs $7; shakes, grilled cheese toasties and hot chips, $5 each. Extras are extra.
We spent: $37 for two.