My dad is the youngest of nine, and I have 34 first cousins, most of whom have children of their own, and we have innumerable second cousins on top of that. There’s even an elderly nun in there somewhere, which I don’t entirely understand. When we used to have family reunions — before everybody got old or reproduced so prodigiously as to have splinter factions of their own — it was nametag time. This being an Irish-Catholic clan, there are lots of Mikes, Johns, Joes, and Marys (and, for a long time, three Robertas). Sometimes, encountering groups of cousins who are all siblings with one another, you think you have a handle on it — and then one more shows up and the elaborate memory palace you’ve constructed goes to hell.
That’s a little like how I felt trying to order a burger at Wahlburgers in the Palo Alto. At the first Bay Area location of the Wahlberg family’s culinary endeavor, you confront the respective members’ faves on a user-unfriendly menu that looks like Flavor Town were a stop on the Red Line of the T. Actor Mark likes a Thanksgiving Day sandwich built around a turkey burger. Musician Donnie likes the BBQ Bacon. Mom’s Fave is an open-faced sloppy joe. Elsewhere, there are the usual creative misspellings (“Dorchestah”), the faux-masculine bravado (two five-ounce burgers with pulled pork is “The Beast”), and a smattering of casual poverty fetishism, with “American ‘government’ cheese” being the first on the list of toppings, because even though a few of them are quite wealthy now, the Wahlbergs claim they ate government cheese when they were poor. If you watch their A&E reality show, already eight seasons strong, you probably know most of this.
Although brother Paul Wahlberg is an accomplished chef, Wahlburgers feels more like a co-branding strategy more than anything. It’s basically Urkel-Os in restaurant form, with the pertinent details changed. That would be fine if this were counter service, but the unnecessarily enormous Wahlburgers has both a fast-food and a sit-down component, like a huge diner with a Five Guys in one corner.
To the point: The burgers simply aren’t good. In fact, they’re poor. The beef on the The Melt (one-third of a pound of beef, bacon, caramelized onions, and pickles, $10.50) is unpleasantly rubbery, likely from erratic swings in temperature during the storage and preparation processes. The pickles and the bacon were flat, too. The jalapeños on the BBQ Bacon Burger (one-third of a pound of beef, white cheddar, bacon, housemade BBQ sauce, avocado spread, $10.50) were heat-free. These people have eaten at beloved burger joints, right? I felt like I was in Texachusetts.
The tater tots ($4) are decent, but we ordered sweet potato tots ($4) as a point of comparison and only after they’d arrived did I notice that the menu said they had added sugar. So those tasted like a children’s breakfast cereal (Urkel-Os again, kinda). Although Wahlburgers opened in mid-November, it hasn’t gotten its rotating specials up and running yet, and the house beer — an unfiltered IPA called the “Wahlbrewski” — was also limpid. It’s also $7 for a 12-ounce pour, in one of those thick glasses that look like they hold pints but don’t. So I turned to the Adult Frappes, four blended boozy drinks that recall T.G.I. Friday’s Mudslides, but without the ’90s-era silliness.
If you come from the kind of raucous, hey-let’s-do-it family whose members like to go to California Pizza Kitchen, argue about who’s driving back, and take a Lyft home, you might find these a tad mild. The Funky Monkey (vanilla vodka with creme de cacao, creme de banana, and “a touch of strawberry syrup” blended with strawberry ice cream, $13) wants to be a working schlub’s Brandy Alexander, but my dining buddy nailed it: It tasted as artificial as the last See’s chocolate, the one somebody ate half of and put back in the box. The Mud Pie (vanilla vodka with coffee liqueur and creme de cacao, blended with coffee ice cream and topped with crumbled Oreo Cookie, $13) was exactly what you want out of such things, except that Friday’s uses Kahlua and Bailey’s and the crumbled cookie was a paltry dusting.
How do I know the Oreo isn’t a Hydrox from the same federal deep-storage facility where the government keeps surplus cheese? Why were they playing Bing Crosby in lieu of deep cuts off New Kids on the Block’s 1989 release Merry, Merry Christmas? Why, on the punched-metal ceiling screen that lists all of Mark Wahlberg’s film credits, is the word Wahlburgers right next to Saw 2?
And why, in a restaurant that likes to pun on “Wahl-” and which has lots of salads, isn’t there a Wahldorf salad next to the Cobb, Caesar, and Classic? Based on this menu, Mom doesn’t seem like the kind of person who would eat a Waldorf, to be honest. She seems more like the kind of maternal figure who gets belligerent at her niece’s First Communion. She has my every sympathy, cause my own poor mother had to deal with a house full of boys, too. But nobody deserves to sit through this dysfunction.
Wahlburgers, 185 University Ave., Palo Alto, 650-382-1389 or wahlburgersrestaurant.com