In case you don’t know (and I congratulate you) after the hype onslaught, Wahlburgers is a hamburger chain that originated in Hingham, Massachusetts, just outside Boston. The owners are three Wahlberg brothers — actor, rapper, and adolescent racist hooligan Mark Wahlberg; his brother Donnie, who was once a member of New Kids on the Block and now plays a Brooklyn detective on TV’s Blue Bloods; and Paul, who’s a chef at a restaurant named after their mother, Alma. Indeed, the literature about the chain claims it’s "chef driven."
Now the ambitious chain, with outside investors, has opened a branch in Coney Island. I made the pilgrimage there a few days after the place debuted to check out the hamburgers. The Coney Island branch is one of a projected seven in New York City. It is also the fifth iteration of the chain in an aggressive international roll-out said to include 60 branches total. The three-story premises, across Stillwell Avenue from Nathan’s, includes a main floor dining room and crowded open kitchen, a basement dining room, and a rooftop deck with views of the ocean that is not yet open. I arrived at 2 p.m. on a weekday afternoon to find a line inside and out, with a 45-minute wait. "You should have seen it this weekend," said the guy standing next to me in line, "it was completely impossible."
I managed to make it to a register in under 10 minutes by offering to carry food out. The menu details a fascinating mix of items, reflecting a Boston perspective on fast food. There are 12 burger-style sandwiches: seven based on beef patties, one deploying a turkey patty, two featuring chicken breast filets, and one each using a breaded haddock patty and a Portobello mushroom cap. Sides include the usual fries, sweet potato fries, cole slaw, and onion rings, plus the less usual chili, tater tots, and mayo-dressed macaroni salad. Then there is a section devoted to three green salads, including a Caesar that warns that the dressing is made with raw egg yolks.
My order was called out after a 15-minute wait. The signature burger (also characterized as "Paul’s Choice") was a third-pounder on a conventional bun with raw onions, dill pickles, lettuce, tomato, and so-called "government cheese," which seemed to be American and melted nicely over the patty like a gooey skullcap. While the menu boasts that all burgers are cooked medium unless otherwise requested, this one came out well-done, and was consequently dry and slightly crumbly. As with the Five Guys chain, with which Wahlburgers certainly hopes to compete, the patty itself was the least interesting part of the ensemble. The most interesting part was the dressing. Like that of the Texas chain Whataburger, it tasted more like mustard than ketchup or mayo. Score one for Wahlburgers.
The burger costs $7.15 before tax, which is considerably more expensive than Five Guys’, although the meat patty is 32 percent larger. It is also attributed to Pat LaFrieda and Creekstone Farms, though it’s nothing that either entity should be particularly proud of. While Five Guys’ french fries are exemplary, Wahlburgers’ fries ($3.35) — which arrived in a small beverage cup and were described a Yukon Gold and "tossed in sea salt" —were shoestrings of no distinction, though they tasted mildly of garlic powder. The tater tots ($3.35) were similarly dry and lifeless, and the serving small.
The burger called Thanksgiving Day commanded a premium price of $8.25. Dressed with stuffing, orange-cranberry sauce, and pureed butternut squash, it lacked the sage-y kick that one might have hoped for from the stuffing. The bulbous patty was made of ground turkey, and bland. A little salt would have helped. The biggest surprise on my visit was the Boston-style milkshake known as a frappe ($4.95). The chocolate rendition was paradoxically thick and also foamy, intensely flavored with chocolate, and damn delicious. Supposing that the crowdedness of the premises diminishes, it could be the thing to get from Wahlburgers during your Coney Island visit next summer. (Hey, who opens a restaurant at a beach resort at the end of the summer rather than the beginning?)
The Coney Island Wahlburgers was the subject of a reality TV episode (season 4, number 7) on the A & E show Wahlburgers, which has been like a four-season commercial for the budding restaurant chain. Unfortunately, aside from shots of Paul and Donnie eating hot dogs at Nathan’s, and multiple scenes of Mark and Donnie humiliating the shorter and shyer Paul, the episode says very little concerning the chain or our branch of it, apart from a scene on the roof of the restaurant during a trumped-up and totally premature grand opening. Apparently, the build-out was not far enough advanced to use the whole place as a setting.
3015 Stillwell Ave, Brooklyn, (718) 975-7330
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