Located in a Hingham shopping center, Wahlburgers is the burgers and merchandising juggernaut created by the three best known brothers of Dorchester's Wahlberg clan: actor Mark Wahlberg, music mogul Donnie Wahlberg and chef Paul Wahlberg. Not just a thanks-bro, that last Wahlberg is an accomplished chef in his own right, having had success at Bridgeman's (Hull MA) before opening family project Alma Nove (around the corner in the same complex in Hingham).
Bracing myself for an onsaught of self indulgence, I found the "Wahlberg factor" at Wahlburgers relatively subdued. For the most part, the restaurant's lime green walls are thankfully light on the Wahls, limited to a few movie posters of Mark, a performance shot of Donnie and a few of Mark's movie titles etched into an ornamental faux ceiling above the booths. The array of TVs over the bar played mostly news, sports and a non-Wahlberg movie on my visit. The tables are comfortable and the booths look very comfortable, but this is a compact space with less seating than most McDonald's. There's a choice of full table service or lining up at the counter.
A no-nonsense locally baked bun resembling the McDonald's model turned out lighter and fresher, and did a nice job holding the beef in. It had just a hint of brioche airiness, but without the sweetness. Flavor and texture both got a boost from a quick grilling with light butter. For their smaller patty the bread-to-meat ratio was a bit much, but for all of the adult sized burgers the bun was a great fit, also nudging the beef flavor along without getting in the way. On "The Melt," thick cut griddled toast stepped out into the spotlight, delivering crispness, the richness of a heavier butter treatment and the appealing flavor of the bread itself (whose corners extended beyond the patty). A hot dog bun had a similar crispy-buttery griddled finish, housed in an old school cardboard holder.
Much to my delight—and almost as much of a delight as server Jillian, who answered and investigated a half dozen questions with cheerful enthusiasm—we learned that the beef is supplied by Pat LaFrieda in New York City. In this era of celebrity chefs, the closest thing to a celebrity meat supplier is LaFrieda, the same outfit that supplies Shake Shack and dozens of New York City's best known burger joints.
The beef is touted as hormone free and ground in house. What's not known is the blend of the meat. On a Phantom Gourmet segment, Paul Wahlberg said the "Our Burger" has brisket and shortrib in the blend. According to server Jillian's kitchen research, all of the burgers use the same blend, which a Bon Appetit blog post confirms has chuck, brisket and shortrib.
Interestingly, you can get your meat cooked to temp, but there are only three choices: rare, medium or well. Not being able to get my usual medium rare, I chose medium for the "Our Burger" ($6.25), the signature creation recommended by Chef Paul. It's a 5-ounce patty topped with "government cheese" (American) and bottomed with lettuce, tomato and "Wahl" sauce. The beef exploded juices (good like Sunkist) upon first bite and remained moist throughout. Inner texture had a softness to it that I like, but that came at the expense of an exterior with only token seasoning and very minimal crusting. As I worked my way through the burger, I discovered that I liked the overall flavor of the sandwich, but very little of it was coming from the beef. So judged on beef alone: high marks for temperature, inner texture and juiciness; a check for seasoning; not-so-high marks for outer texture and flavor.
The Toppings (and Bottomings)
All of the complementary ingredients played their parts effectively, without problem and without fanfare. All except the Wahl sauce, which I thought was a nice improvement over the creamy Thousand Island style sauce typical at many burger joints. This sauce had a little more heat plus a little more spice that helped compensate for the flavor void in the beef. Add it all up and you have a good, juicy burger that with a little more surface oomph (crusting, seasoning) could be an outstanding burger.
"The Melt" ($7.95) was an interesting creation that packed mustard sauce, bacon, pickles and cheese into a patty melt that oozed nearly as much butter as cheese, making the sandwich very rich and very flavorful. I almost like this one, but it's more of an ensemble piece—the beef got a little lost in general and upstaged in particular by the bread (nicely done, actually) and the strong mustard. The bacon was weak: too thin, no flavor.
The Fries (and such)
Fries: These had to have been a frozen product ($2.95), lightly coated to give them some assist on the crunch. Very lightly salted. I found them neither impressive nor repulsive. If you're looking to try the fries just to get a taste but without a major commitment, I recommend ordering the intended-for-children "Smahl Burger" ($4.95, 3-ounce patty, not quite as moist) instead, since it comes with fries included.
Onion rings: These might have looked a little repulsive (such a light color) as the basket ($2.75) got lowered to the table, but the super thin cut vidalias succeeded in crispiness (very) and in seasoning (heavy salt plus an herbal sprinkle). Eat 'em with your eyes closed if necessary, but eat 'em.
The hot dog joined a boiled all-beef weiner with a griddled bun. All of the toppings were fine and the ratios (bun to meat, toppings to meat) were in the right proportion, but the bun was again the standout thanks largely to both the butter (more than noticeable, less than obtrusive) and perfect doneness. It's not an earth shattering hot dog, but it's a very solid one.
The place is clean and bright and the service was excellent.
As I tasted all of the items I frequently closed my eyes and tried to mentally factor out that this was a restaurant owned by celebrities and marketed as much to sell the merchandise as the burgers. I tried to imagine what I'd think if I tasted these same burgers at a no-name joint. My brain started to hurt and I quickly gave up, but I'm convinced I've fairly assessed the burgers on their own merit, avoiding both knee-jerk dismissal based on the Wahlberg name and knee-jerk acceptance based on the LaFrieda name.
The Bottom Line
Wahlburgers is better than I thought it would be. Are they great? Not yet. I still want more seasoning, more crusting and more flavor from the meat, but the juice happy burgers are very doable and the hot dog might just be the hidden gem.
Other Opinion/ Info
Yelp reviews of Wahlburgers
Urbanspoon reviews of Wahlburgers
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