19 Shipyard Drive, Hingham MA 02043 (map); 781-749-2110; wahlburgers.com
Cooking Method: Griddled
Short Order: This Wahlberg family restaurant is heavy on the branding but has the burgers to back it up
Want Fries with That? Stick with the tater tots, regular or sweet potato
Price: Single cheeseburger, $4.50; double, $6.95; triple $9; specialty burgers, $6.25 to $7.95
Notes: Full bar; open till 1 a.m. daily
When my sister and I were little, my mom took us to the library a lot, and I was always bothered by the author-aggrandizing typography on the books my mom checked out. The overall cover designs were excellent—it was the '80s and my mom liked spy-type books, so there were lots of hammers and sickles, an unlikely number of submarines and helicopters, and even the odd swastika—but I didn't like that the author's name was always in such huge type compared to the title.
I went to the library looking for books about baseball and criminals, so I scanned the shelves looking for those keywords. Why would it matter who did the typing if the story was about something ridiculous like trucks or policemen? I kinda get the point now, but I still harbor suspicions about any product that seems more about the guy who made the thing than about the thing itself. I don't want a Picasso, I just want a pretty picture.
So I had mixed emotions when Boston's two most famous Wahlbergs, Mark and Donnie, announced plans to bankroll their brother Paul's burger operation in the Hingham Shipyard. I have a vaguely positive impression of the Hollywood Wahlbergs, and Paul is said to do good things with Italian food at his first restaurant, Alma Nove. And everybody likes hamburgers and an excuse to take the commuter ferry to Hingham.
But still: a burger place run by Wahlbergs called Wahlburgers? I feared that the quasi-pun, borderline narcissist name was a bad sign. Even if Paul's an accomplished chef and the other brothers would be crazy NOT to capitalize on the Wahlberg name in their South Shore stronghold, it still seems a tad cheesy. I was expecting a good burger but also bracing myself for a possible letdown if the place turned out to be more focused on the marketing than the meat.
Last things first, let me say that Wahlburgers isn't nearly as self-indulgent as it could be. In fact, only two of the eight megascreen TVs show a family highlight reel (no Boogie Nights when I was there; lots New Kid Donnie and lots of Handsome Pensive Mark from those movies where he's handsome and pensive). And ok, the ceiling panels are decorated with Wahlberg movie titles, but it's not as if there's an animatronic Funky Bunch dancing on the bar.
The slick and shiny space is, however, very heavily branded. It is quite evident that the Hingham location is intended to be the first of many. The logo is a vaguely chickpea-looking "W" in a green circle, which strikes me as more appropriate for a minichain of baked falafel places, but is tasteful nonetheless. Good thing, too, because it's everywhere: on the pint glasses and napkins, as well as on the hats, t-shirts, and sweatshirts for sale in the big glass case by the door.
Wahlburgers is physically impressive. It's set up in a V shape, with cafeteria-style self-serve seating and the kitchen to the right and a full bar and server-serviced tables to the left. It's open till 1 a.m. every night, which is suspiciously late in a suburban eat-and-buy enclave, and the ambitious electronics and thoroughly stocked bar suggest they intend to do as much trade in late-night Marky Marktinis* as they do in meal-time burgers.
* Not an actual menu item. Yet.
We were lucky to find three stools together at the bar in the middle of a Thursday afternoon; this place is busy, and deservedly so. The Wahlburgs are really famous in Massachusetts, and they've put together a pretty good quick-serve hamburger place. The menu is concise yet comprehensive: You can get burgers, hot dogs, and potato treats prepared in a variety of sizes and designs; frappes; a dozen or so draft beers; and all manner of hard alcohol.
The basic burgers are sold by the patty: single-decker "Smahlburger", double-decker, or triple-decker. Order a double or more if you're hungry. These are small patties, about three ounces, made from fresh, not frozen beef. They're a fair deal at $4.50, $6.95, and $9 (plus $1 per topping like American cheese, caramelized onion, avocado, and six other choices), but they can disappoint diners not used to this more modest style of burger. Don't be shy, get yourself a double; it's the same amounts of both beef and money as a regular old restaurant burger.
It's good eating, too. Our single cheeseburger came out medium rare as requested, no small feat for a thin patty in a busy, fairly new place (I first visited Wahlburgers shortly after it opened in late October). The beef was well-seasoned with salt and pepper; I also hallucinated some cumin, but the manager told me there's none on the premises. The patty—subjected to no smashing or other precooking violence—had just enough sear so you know it wasn't steamed, but it wouldn't satisfy a heavy char-chaser. The fluffy, griddled bun was good, although a bit large for the patty.
From the menu of five-ounce "specialty burgers," we enjoyed the Donnie-approved BBQ bacon burger, described as "a spiced up weekend barbecue on a bun." It's topped with bacon, avocado, jalapeños, cheese, and barbecue sauce, which sounds like too much but isn't, because they get the portions and the scattering right, with the bacon and cheese on top and the rest of the goods down below. The bacon could have been cooked for another 15 seconds or so, but this tricked-out burger was well worth the $7.50.
The fries were disappointing. Ours came out lukewarm and would have been pale and underseasoned regardless. The tater tots were good, because a tater tot can't be otherwise, though they were quite likely frozen. They were identical in appearance and taste to the ones from my school cafeteria—which were awesome.
The sweet potato tots are where the real action is. These are made in-house and served crunchy on the outside—not just crispy, mind you, but downright crunchy—and squishy in the middle.
I have one weird buddy who won't eat hamburgers but will eat hot dogs. He said the dog, made of Pearl's all-beef natural casing hot dogs, was good. It was big and the bun was butter-griddled. Just about everything is served with their Wahl sauce," a sriracha'd thousand island they are quite proud of. It's fine.
The service was unfailingly polite both in person and when I called later with annoying burger-nerd questions. Things were a little hectic since it was busy and new, but everybody was cool and friendly. I was disappointed to be told that the wait for onion rings would be "like an hour; they're hand-cut," apparently by a man with a very slow hand. And it was a bit disconcerting to ask for a knife and be told, with a smile, "We don't do utensils." But they're on top of all things unrelated to onions and knives: Our order came out correctly before I had finished my first Wahlbrewski, a good pale ale contract brewed by Boston's Harpoon.
I like Wahlburgers. Remind me of that if I roll my eyes when they start taking over Eastern Massachusetts hamburger real estate. Given the concept, they are virtually guaranteed to succeed; given the execution, I have no problem with that.