There’s a line in one of my favorite novels, Snow Crash, where the threat of the title is explained to the main character, and he can’t quite get his head around it.
“This Snow Crash thing—is it a virus, a drug, or a religion?”
Juanita shrugs. “What’s the difference?”
Shut the fuck up, it was less heavy-handed in 1992. Anyway, this pretty well sums up my feelings about a brand where, if I say its name, you don’t know if I’m talking about a television show or a restaurant. There’s a weird Marshall McLuhan/Videodrome quality to that idea that gives me a sour, orange feeling behind my eyes. You can’t eat reality television! I said.
I was wrong. There is no better way to describe this place than “trying to eat television.”
There’s a shopping plaza near my city’s gargantuan university that has a Wahlburgers now. The people I was with had heard the food was good, but I was mostly interested in it as a curiosity. The fact that all I was there for was morbid fascination did wonders for the quality of my experience, because boy, I tell ya, that is the full extent of what I got out of this meal.
When you approach a Wahlburgers (not enter, approach), you’re given the choice of counter service or table service. Depending on a lot of factors there is presumably a difference in how quickly you get your food in one direction or the other, but I did resent this question. Part of the Wahlburgers brand is appropriating the image of a tiny hole-in-the-wall burger shack, so of course they have a counter. But they’re also a tourist destination. They’re Bubba Gump Shrimp Co. They’re Hard Rock Cafe. Their business model is nonsensical operating as the restaurant they pretend to be. When I went, we were seated at a table, because I have no interest in trading my comfort for their credibility.
Even that level of pretense does not apply to the idea that the Wahlbergs opened this place as a restaurant rather than an effort to turn their family into a brand. It is covered with reminders of who owns the place, and whether or not one of them was in Transformers: Age of Extinction. Being asked to eat a hamburger at a table where a poster leers over you from the wall reminding you that Donnie Wahlberg can still get work on a TV show as…extant…as CBS police drama Blue Bloods makes you feel very slightly dissociative, like you’re a character in a comedy sketch, but you’re aware that you’re just a prop in a weird joke about celebrity-owned restaurant chains. This is a scene from The Critic, right? Surely there couldn’t possibly be such a thing as an actual chain of eateries that operate on the logic of “Planet Hollywood, but if the only actors in the world were Mark and Donnie Wahlberg.” And, I guess, whoever Bob Wahlberg is.
I’ve never watched the show, because Jesus Christ, but I know there are four Wahlbergs behind Wahlburgers, who roughly constitute the brains, the face, and two idle hands: Paul Wahlberg is the chef, and probably the only reason the chain exists. Mark, who has an actual career despite a rap sheet that would get you locked away for a thousand years if he’d had the grave misfortune of not being white, is the reason the chain is allowed to exist, the one whose name isn’t met with an awkward shrug. Donnie and Robert were integral, presumably, because they had enough free time on their hands to turn this enterprise into both a successful restaurant and a show on basic cable (A&E, so very fucking basic). Donnie, for one, was and apparently still is a member of New Kids on the Block, in addition to acting, so he has years of experience at doing two things poorly simultaneously. That’s key here.
Their names and filmographies are plastered everywhere. There’s endless reams of text on the ceiling listing why you should care about where your $9 worth of cheeseburger money is going. We were seated very near the bathrooms, between which sat not only the poster for Blue Bloods I mentioned, but a poster for the then-recent Mark vehicle Deepwater Horizon, a movie that understands what was bad about the BP Gulf spill about as well as Paul Wahlberg understands what cheese tastes like. I really can’t stress enough how surreal this all is. Seeing an adoring monument to something utterly inconsequential is weird enough, but these places make serious money. Seeing a monument to something entirely unworthy draw a massive crowd is just queasily hypnotic.
And the thing that takes this from being a quirky side business that just happens to be owned by celebrities to a theme restaurant where the theme is Mark and Donnie Wahlberg, above and beyond the nigh-pornographic branding, is that the food is demoralizingly awful.
The menu is mercifully short. It’s the only thing that gives them any authenticity as a friendly neighborhood burger dive, although for those purposes it’s still twice what it should be. Various items are given little icons denoting that they’re the favorite item of one family member or another. If I remember correctly, Mark’s is some turkey burger abomination, a recreation of the new-trend-branding-itself-as-a-classic “Thanksgiving sandwich” that, having stuffing and cranberry sauce and whatever the fuck else on it, probably adds six items to what the kitchen has to produce just for this one item nobody probably orders, in a display of the kind of menu bloat that is exactly the mark of an overpriced, mediocre establishment, but anathema to the kind of place they’re pretending to be. The menu fitting on the front and back of one broad page doesn’t change that.
I ordered whatever dumb name they call a patty melt, and tater tots, which I must point out are nearly impossible to fuck up. Every menu item that comes with cheese proudly boasts that it’s made with “government cheese, like the brothers grew up on,” and that whole thing is in quotes because it actually says that. Actually, no, for presumably legal reasons, it’s always listed as “government” cheese, because nothing says homemade authenticity like ironically reappropriating a pejorative and then putting it in goddamn scare quotes. But I saw into the kitchen, and between the sheer volume of the containers it comes in and how it tastes, I’m pretty sure they’re not misleading us.
This is the most horrifying part of the Wahlburgers experience: the food tastes like absolutely nothing. The cheeseburger had no barest whiff of cheese or burger. The cheese is a thin, pale fluid that makes the bread and, somehow, the beef feel like they were dunked in tap water. None of it has any discernable flavor, like I accidentally bit into prop food that was somehow edible. The impression this creates has the same disjunction of cause and effect as slamming on the brake pedal in a dream and your car not stopping. Your brain fundamentally knows that, if food is going in your mouth, it’s supposed to taste like something. Wahlburgers makes your brain angry. I was hoping that my tater tots, if bland, would at least be too salty, because something would be happening. My body would know it’s being fed. But no, they taste like the same dense wads of paper as all the other food. My wife got hers with a side of what’s listed in the menu of “Paul’s signature wahl sauce,” not capitalized, which looks like the Special Sauce that comes on a Big Mac, but even more homogenous. I dipped a tot in that, mother fucker, it still tasted like a nitrogen-oxygen smoothie. The petit-fours at a 4-year-old’s imaginary tea party have more flavor when a teddy bear pretends to eat them. It’s like there’s a party in your mouth, and they’re performing Sartre’s No Exit.
My meal probably cost as much as a hardcover book, which would have been a better use of my money even as a meal. But even if that book was Camus’ The Stranger, I wouldn’t have learned nearly as much about the essential misery and pointlessness of human existence. Go Sox.