Of course we love our mom & pops, and our favorite burger joints around the country are pretty much all independently owned, but there are certain times in life—overnight layovers, hungover Sunday mornings, all-day shopping trips at the outlets—that the only options around are the chains. Chain Reaction is here to help you decide when to go for the burger, and when you're better off sticking with the chicken fingers.
555 Market St, San Diego CA 92101 (map)
15 locations, mostly in the Southeastern U.S., plus one in San Diego; see list at wetwillies.com
The Schtick: Frozen drinks-focused bar with over a dozen different flavors
The Burger: A bland disaster. The less said about it, the better
Want Fries With That? Might as well since they come with the burger. The other option (mango coleslaw) isn't worth eating
Setting: A warehouse-sized bar that's pretty empty during daylight hours (busier at night)
Price: Cheeseburgers on a stick, $8; small frozen drink, $8
Wet Willie's is the type of place that seems ripped directly from the imagination of a 12-year-old girl. The chain of bars with 15 locations in the U.S. is all about colorful frozen cocktails as sweet as candy. Behind the bar, machines swirl over a dozen flavors of fruity slurry. Some of the mixes contain ice cream, others contain flavored rum or even grain alcohol. All are intensely sugary.
Going into this experiment, I wasn't overly confident that a bar named after quite possibly the most irritating childhood prank would serve praise-worthy burgers, but I've been surprised before. The menu promised burgers that are "hand pattied and grilled to perfection" so there was a glimmer of hope. There are five regular-sized burgers available, plus one option that seemed more fitting for a bar with such a high novelty factor: mini cheeseburgers on a stick.
My initial fascination with the cheeseburgers on a stick was short lived. Likely cooked from frozen, the patties were so finely ground and over-processed that they tasted spongy. Making matters worse, the beef was grey and completely flavorless. Likewise, the sweaty, slimy slice of cheese was bland and unappetizing. The only element that brought any flavor was the pickle. A cheeseburger from McD's would be a vast improvement.
Pale, limp, and lifeless fries come standard. Some were approaching crisp, others were so undercooked they were floppy. Still, fries are a better option than the mango "slaw," but not even remotely good.
Wet Willie's gets one thing right: the drinks. The potent mix of alcohol and sugar makes it a great place to get "girl drink drunk". You can sample a few flavors before you commit, which is a smart bet to avoid disappointment because some aren't nearly as good as others.
After nixing the mojito flavor, I settled on a much tastier mix of strawberry and "monkey shine", while my dining companion opted for the "shock treatment" with Blue Curacao and grain alcohol (yeah, buddy). Both were tasty, but at $8 for a small (and no break on frozen drinks during happy hour), the tab gets steep pretty quickly, cementing Wet Willie's as a novelty act. Considering that many of their locations are in tourist centers with large, transitory populations, that may be what they're going for.
There are plenty of bars that produce reasonable grub alongside their main focus, but this isn't one of them. If you must eat, this may be a good place to stick with the chicken fingers.