The Wahlberg brothers are taking quite a gamble.
That’s a huge jump from the seven locations open now — it seems there’s quite a bit of faith in the better burger segment.
The chain began outside of the Wahlbergs’ hometown of Boston, MA, in 2011, located across the street from classically — trained chef Paul Wahlberg’s fine dining spot.
With Paul Wahlberg’s 30 years’ worth of culinary expertise, Wahlburgers deftly enters the arena of the chef-driven better burger empires to take on Shake Shack — all while trying to dodge issues that often arise with big celebrity-themed concepts.
As more buzz builds around the chain and its expansion plans, I headed to the Boston location to see if the hype is deserved.
On a recent trip to Boston, I visited the Wahlburgers location in the Fenway neighbourhood, just a stone's throw from historic Fenway Park.
I decided to go for the quick-service option in the front. You order at the counter like any other fast-casual eatery; so far, so good.
The menu looks extensive, but it isn't really all that big. here are four 'Signature Burgers', three 'House Burgers' with choice of extra toppings, and six 'Wahlfaves', which are essentially non-burger choices. A variety of sides and salads round out the menu -- but who really gets a salad at a place with 'burger' in the name?
The interior is very slick and modern, and it has the ubiquitous fast-casual combo of warm woods and sleek brushed steel. The look is almost dated at this point, given how many Chipotle and Shake Shack clones have followed suit. Green is the dominant colour at Wahlburgers, however, with most surfaces sporting some shade or another.
Of course, Wahlburgers must acknowledge its fearless leader, Marky Mark of Funky Bunch fame. There are photos of Mark Wahlberg -- and of his brothers as well, I assume -- dotting the space.
It's not as celebrity-centric and kitschy as other chains, which is good -- but then one feels as though the connection is almost halfhearted. Perhaps there's just no comfortable way to rectify the balance. It's toned down, and I appreciate that.
There's a surprisingly large bevy of beverages, ranging from local specialty sodas to coffees and teas, as well as the traditional sodas. I snagged a classic IBC root beer.
They also offer frappes -- the New England term for milkshake. The menu is peppered with New England-isms, like the 'Fluffanutta' and the 'Triple Decker' burgers, referring to the three -- story apartment houses found all over the Greater Boston region. The frappe itself is delicious -- I ordered the coffee flavour. It's creamy and smooth, with the perfect consistency for drinking: not too thick, but far from soupy.
You're given a buzzer to alert you when your order is ready, just like at Shake Shack, which seems to be what Wahlburgers is trying to emulate. After about twelve minutes or so, my order was ready. I ordered an O.F.D. Burger ('Originally From Dorchester', a large neighbourhood of Boston where the Wahlbergs grew up), a BBQ Bacon Burger, a Crispy Haddock sandwich, onion rings, and tater tots.
The smells wafting up from the tray are intoxicating. However, my order was incorrect, with both burgers missing every single topping they were supposed to have. The staff very politely took the burgers back, and returned some six minutes later with replacements which were still incorrect. Perhaps it was just an off day; I like to give the benefit of the doubt. But looking at the receipt, the order was taken down correctly, so something simply wasn't clicking in the kitchen.
I press onward and start munching on the delicately crispy onion rings, priced at $3.50. They're not so much rings as they are fried onion threads -- deliciously crispy and greasy. However, being so thin, they're incredibly difficult to eat and dip in any sauce. These rings are not in the realm of finger foods; rather, a fork is almost mandatory.
The tater tots are little golden pillows of heaven. Albeit, it's difficult to make a bad tater tot, but these are far, far, far away from the 'bad' end of the spectrum. They're crunchy and hot, and the serving size is huge considering they only cost $3.50. There's also a sweet potato version which I didn't try, for those who are curious.
I'm obligated to try the Crispy Haddock sandwich: any Boston -- centric chain offering fried seafood better be worth its salt. It costs a reasonable $8.50. I'm not disappointed by it per se, but it is lacking somewhat. The panko-breaded haddock fillet was delightfully crispy, but shaped too suspiciously rectangular for me to fully believe it wasn't formed somehow. It also fell apart very easily, resulting in an incredibly messy sandwich, with the tomato slice slipping out constantly. I quickly retreat to using my fork to finish it.
I decided to try the second incorrect iteration of the BBQ Bacon Burger to at least find out how a Wahlburgers burger tastes. It's a little small, and comes with a wooden pick piercing the fluffy artisan bun. Mine also came with an unidentified sauce that resembled a savoury, slightly piquant aioli -- perhaps it was the 'wahl sauce' found on the menu.
The patty itself seems rather beefy -- if you'll excuse the poor pun. The menu states all the burgers are Black Angus beef supplied by the renowned Pat LaFrieda. The melty American cheese is draped effortlessly over the patty, and the bun holds up well here.
The beef is as good as its pedigree attests: flavorful, lean, and well-formed. As far as cheeseburgers go, this is pretty great. If only it were what I ordered! But for the price, perhaps not exactly worth it. What I ordered -- the BBQ Bacon Burger -- clocks in at $8.95, and the closest corollary to what I was given, a single-patty House Burger, costs $7.75. It's just a tad too small for that price point, in my opinion.
Next up, the O.F.D. Burger. After one incorrect iteration, I finally get the right one, and I'm excited to dig in. This is slightly bigger than the previous burger, and the bun is struggling to support the half-pound patty, bacon, Swiss cheese, tomato jam, and mushrooms.
The beef is perfect, like the burger before. But the toppings prove too much for the bun, which has quickly become soggy and structurally unsound. The tomato jam is on the bottom bun, which makes little sense: one has to eat the burger upside down to save it from complete disintegration at the hands of a sopping bottom bun. Despite the Swiss cheese, bacon, and sautéed mushrooms, the flavours aren't all there. It's decent, but quite a messy burger, and it's hard to justify the $9.95 cost.
I also get to sample some mac n' cheese that the chain is developing -- apparently the head chef, Mark's brother Paul, was here earlier testing out the recipe. It's very creamy and rich, and the choice of cheeses works well. It's not the typical cheddar; there are some saltier cheeses in the mix, perhaps Parmesan or Romano. Also, the penne is a nice choice, as it's easier to grab with a fork.
With the recently announced expansion plans, Wahlburgers is planning to sweep the better burger sector by force, gunning for Shake Shack's prized position on top. But can it be done?
Perhaps. But there are a few things to work out first. The staff is friendly enough, but order accuracy is a must in the fast casual arena. The food is decent, but that's as far is it goes for now -- fantastic suppliers are only half the battle. The menu needs more specialties, more Wahlberg brothers originals -- items that can only be done at Wahlburgers, not just any burger chain. I think Wahlburgers has great potential, but they need to actually use it.
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