Wahlburgers, James Street, Covent Garden

Including Transformers: The Last Knight, this is the worst thing Mark Wahlberg has ever done

Burger source

Wahlburgers is a chain of growing notoriety. 10 seasons of reality TV, 30+ outlets in the US, a high-profile arrival in Covent Garden and of course – the Wahlberg family – made me curious. And a mixed barrage of reviews (bad from critics, more positive – it seemed – from punters) made me even moreso. Averaging four stars on Tripadvisor and Google Reviews, it surely merited investigation, yes? Not so much, it turns out. But spoilers…

The “fresh Scottish beef” is, apparently, a “signature blend of brisket, short rib and chuck.” Should be good, right? I mean, that’s some tasty cuts right there.

The order

“The brothers each have a favourite,” the menu acclaims. Well, they were all 4oz burgers and we were hungry, so we went for the 1/2 pound “O.F.D” – “Originally from Dorchestah”, featuring a 6oz patty, swiss cheese, bacon, sautéed mushrooms and a ‘housemade tomato jam.’

There were a few of us, so we tried a lot of sides – Mac & Cheese, cola wings, hummus [sic] and tortillas, sweet potato and regular fries, thin and crispy onion rings.

I drank the Wahlbrewski, an American Pale Ale served on tap.

The meat of it

The summary kind of gives it away. This is a terrible, terrible burger. A crime against burgers. Daylight robbery at £12 for the burger alone. Let’s look at it.

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Barely melted swiss cheese. The bun is cold, though inoffensive. The patty is small relative to everything else.

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In cross section: you see mealy, finely ground, tightly packed meat. The pale red tomato jam has a strange consistency. The bacon is flaccid and the mushrooms are an odd inclusion.

First bite. No seasoning. The meat tastes like its from a cow that has been unbundled from mummification prior to butchering and preparation. Dry, tasteless meat is not salvaged my limpid bacon and tasteless cheese. The bun holds up and provides sweetness and body – but that’s about all that’s redeeming about this burger.

Four of us ordered it, and none of us were willing to waste the calories to finish it. Nearly two full burgers’ worth of detritus went back. In my few years of burger reviewing, this is the first time I refused to finish the meal.

The waitstaff were extremely courteous and apologetic. They tried to explain away our dislike for the burger. “I don’t like Swiss cheese either….” The cheese was a small part of the problem. “Our meat blend is very unusual, a lot of people won’t love it, it’s the brisket…” The meat blend, in theory, is fine. Brisket is a little unusual and would have reduced the overall fat content, but shouldn’t have dried it out completely. “Try our double burger, you’ll love it.” We declined to buy any more of the horrific burgers, but in an attempt to win us round the manager brought one anyway, on the house, split five ways for us to try.

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It was marginally better, in the way that a slap to the face is better than a gutpunch. i.e. Both terrible. In practical terms, a more substantial, Big-Mac-esque burger sauce, and a more melty cheese added moisture and umami. But the meat was the same rubbery, leathery awfulness we’d experienced previously.

My first ever nul points. I would not eat this burger again if you paid me its price. Misters Wahlberg, you should be ASHAMED, to lend your family name to this horror, this caloric vacuum of flavour, this insult to burgers, to cows, to your customers.

A rapid fire set of reviews for the sides:

  • The tortilla/hummus [sic] combo was fine but uninspired. You could have been eating Doritos and Tesco houmous.
  • The Mac & Cheese – was flagrant misrepresentation in that it was neither mac nor cheese, but rather standard penne in a mild, garlicky white sauce. Most of this went uneaten.
  • The cola wings – were great. Really crisp, sweet with a hint of heat, juicy meat that fell off the bone. A highlight.
  • The fries and sweet potato fries – were fine. Well cooked, lightly seasoned, good structure and body though not really notable.
  • The fried pickles – were well fried and tasted ok – but the pickle flavour was very light. The slices are too thin and the pickles too weak to hold up to the batter and deep frying.
  • The thin and crispy onion rings – were extremely moreish. Heavily seasoned, they were salty, sweet, crispy and delicious.

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The Wahlbrewski – a light, refreshing, citrusy American Pale Ale – was really nice (to my craft-beer loving palate). A strong partnership with an American brewery, a sweetness takes the edge off the bitterness of the ale, and its light and well carbonated. A good partner for the food, such it was.

Monkey finger rating

Bun – 2/5
Build – 2/5
Burger – 0/5
Taste – 0/5
Sides – 3/5 – the onion rings would get 5 on their own, the wings 4, the fries 3.5.
Value – 1/5 – £30 for burger, sides, drink and shared starters for food of this quality in that environment was just too much

Burger rating – 0/5 – all the points Wahlburgers gets – for the service, for the sides, for the beer – it loses to the appalling travesty it claims is a burger.

The deets

Please don’t go there for the burgers. But it’s opposite Covent Garden tube if you want a quiet American Pale Ale and a basket of onion rings, brilliant service and a brightly-lit fast food environment. And I’d definitely recommend it for that.

Brewdog, Clerkenwell, London

Convincing vegan burger; actual meat let down by overcooking/packing

Burger source

I’ve been an “Equity Punk” since 2015 – holding a very small number of shares in the crowdfunded Brewdog empire – but I’ve never taken advantage of it. So we corrected that this weekend and stopped in for a burger and beer at the Brewdog bar in Clerkenwell.

Brewdog bigs up the burger origins a little in its menu: “Our bespoke mix of chuck, rib cap and brisket beef comes solely from British farms including our friends at Alec Jarrett Farm & Foxham Farm.” And its buns too: “Our burger buns are baked exclusively for us at Wrights Bakery, independent and family run since 1867.”

The order

Matt and I split a ‘Patriot burger’ – 7oz beef patty, smoked bacon, cheddar, pickles, onion, baby gem & bbq sauce in a sesame and poppy seeded brioche bun – and a ‘Beyond meat’ burger – beyond meat patty, vegan chipotle slaw, vegan gouda cheese, roasted red peppers, baby gem & pickles in a beetroot brioche bun. Disclaimer: I have a tiny shareholding in Beyond Meat too, following its IPO.

On the side, we shared some wings, fries and sweet potato fries.

We each had a ‘beer flight’ as well – four one third pint glasses of different Brewdog beers. We had Instamatic (wheat ale – v unusual), Elvis Juice (famous Brewdog IPA), East Coast IPA and Clockwork Tangerine. The fruitier IPAs, because I was ordering and I like that kind of thing.

The meat of it

So, as I tried two burgers, each in turn.

Let’s start with the Patriot burger.

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Ok, this has been brutalised by the cross section but you can see from this and the feature picture that this has not been well stacked. Without the ceremonial knife holding it together, the meat is sliding all over the place, the salad is spilling out the sides; pickles undernearth basically created an icerink for the burger. People who read my blog regularly will also know that I’m about to be unimpressed with the meat – overcooked (no pink at all, that’s not just the lighting), packed solid, finely ground. All terrible errors. And because the meat turns up on site as mince, they have little choice – food safety regulations mean they have to cook it medium well. Total shame, as the meat was good quality and well seasoned, although somewhat lacking in crust (hotter griddle needed). And a quick word on the bacon: it was a bit insipid and floppy. I wish more burger places would either take the Americans lead and make crispy bacon REALLY crispy, or use thicker cut/more flavourful bacon if they’re going to cook it like they did here.

Almost everything else about the burger was actually pretty good; the seasoning was great, sweet BBQ sauce, crisp pickle and melty, salty cheddar was actually really well held by the brioche – which felt like a standard white bun, much less sweet than you’d expect of a brioche. It was soft, but served untoasted – actually totally fine in context. Such a shame that the texture of the meat had that slightly rubbery consistency that overcooked, overpacked burgers do.

In contrast, the Beyond Meat burger…

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The stack here was a little more controlled but the ‘bottomings’ cause the same problem. Messy build. The Beyond Burger is texturally consistent though, so no problems there, though probably needs a smaller bun or bigger patty. How did this all come together?

Pretty impressively, actually. The chipotle slaw adds a lovely, savoury crunch (almost bacony), the pickles and beetroot bun provide sweetness, that vegan gouda – why can’t I buy that in a grocery store?? – amazingly convincing, salty, gooey goodness. The Beyond Burger is as good as it always is – not quite fooling you into thinking its beef, but really very close. The overall package was great, and I’d probably have this over the Patriot burger on a return visit.

As to the sides…

The wings weren’t standard buffalo wings – buttermilk batter meant they were super crispy – great – but the addition of a honey glaze substantially tempered the hot sauce. Basically, they were barely spicy. But they were crisp and tasty nonetheless. Without the heat, the blue cheese sauce was surplus to requirements.

The fries were pretty delightful, especially the sweet potato fries. They arrive unseasoned, but once that’s corrected, they are crisp, full of OG potato flavour, and not at all greasy. Really very good work.

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I’m not going to attempt to review the beers. The bartender that served us was – at least apparently, I have no way of knowing – incredibly expert. He guided us on flavour profiles, food pairings (“the esters in the wheat beer will give it a cooling effect for the spice in the buffalo wings, but the Elvis Juice will kick it up a notch”), and more. But it was consistently good as Brewdog always is, and some interesting variations. Nice to have it on tap instead of bottled/canned, too.

Monkey finger rating

To each burger in turn

Patriot Burger

Bun –  5/5
Build – 2/5
Burger – 2/5
Taste –  3/5

Beyond Burger

Bun – 4/5
Build – 3/5
Burger – 4/5
Taste – 4/5

Sides – 4/5 -would have been higher had there been more hot sauce in the buffalo wings, the fries are really excellent
Value – 4/5 – £22 per head for burger, sides, beer per head – with a 10% Equity Punk discount. Pretty good even without.

Overall rating – 4/5 – the experience was fun and the Beyond Burger was really very good. I’d go back, and probably try even more different beers. Or maybe – controversially – the chicken burger.

The deets

There are Brewdog bars all over the place now – find your nearest here.

Burger &  Shake, Marchmont Street, London

Good all rounder, over-ordered like crazy as a result. Hard shakes are ftw.

Burger Source

Having eaten our way through many of the mainstays of London burgerness, we are having to hunt harder for top shops to feed our (well, mostly my) burger habit. Friends wanted to meet near Holborn, so Burger & Shake it was to be. The other mooted venue was a Hoxton Burger, but I also wanted my first experience of the famous Hoxton Grill to be in Hoxton, rather than in the more generalist restaurant that supports the Hoxton Hotel in Holborn, so I vetoed it…

To call the website minimalist would be overstating things, but the menu does tell us this much: “Our 100% beef patty is made up of cuts from Aberdeen angus and charolais cattle, that graze in Ayrshire Scotland. We cook our beef burgers medium rare as standard…”

So far, so good.

The order

The friends who wanted to meet in the area (and who worked locally) were late. So we kicked off with some wings and some chilli fries. I kicked in for a “Bourbontun” hard shake, feat. Vanilla, peanut butter and bourbon… because obviously. Then came the main order; Jimjamjebobo and I split the House Burger (“180g beef patty, lettuce, tomato, pickle, American cheese and sweet cured bacon with our mustard and horseradish ketchup sauce”) and the New Yorker (“180g beef patty, lettuce, French’s mustard, Monterey Jack Cheese, pickle and fried onion. Served in our potato bun that is cooked with the patty under a cloche on the grill.”)

That’s when things started to go wrong (in terms of how much we ordered).  And I’ll take a lot of responsibility for this – I’d been ill for a few weeks and this was a first outing with friends in a while, so I was celebrating/commiserating the bloc of time out of commission with food.

And so we ALSO ordered onion rings. More chilli fries. A further double portion of wings. Mac & Cheese with bacon.  AND sweet potato fries. Even between five of us, this was WAY too much food.

The meat of it

Both the burgers we ordered looked great – fresh, glazed potato roll, well stacked with a healthy six ounce patty that was clearly well cooked (if perhaps more the medium side of medium rare than the rare side). Grind, pack and fat ratio was good (I like my burgers like I like my women… coarse ground and loosely packed*), meat was juicy but not dripping, the build was excellent on first impression.

Then to the taste…

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The House burger was good, if perhaps lacking in the bangin’ beats the name and description promise. There wasn’t a hint of horesradish in the horseradish ketchup and, if I’m being critical, the patty was a little underseasoned. The bacon was good but not crunchy enough to provide textural contrast, and not enough saltiness. The bun and other fillings held up well, but there wasn’t quite enough umami in this one for me. Could be better.

The New Yorker came up trumps, though (no pun intended). The onions and pickle provided a lovely crisp, sweet finish, the monterey jack cheese added a salty oomph to the thing, and the whole was greater than the sum of its parts… although the burger did slide around on the onions something chronic.

If I’d had to choose between them from the descriptions alone, I’d have backed the House burger for the top job (everyone else ordered it), but the New Yorker came up from behind to win it all. Impressive work. Even if it’s less effective an analogy for the 2016 presidential raced than it initially seemed it might be.

As to the sides:

  • the wings were lush, substantial, crispy and perfectly coated with the uncle Frank’s hot sauce/butter combination that is Buffalo.
  • The chilli fries – weren’t seasoned before the addition of chilli (WHY, OH WHY?) so they were a bit bland and soggy, but the chilli was good as those things go. Depth of flavour and lovely hint of heat, rich meat and bean sauce in plentiful supply.  Regular fries would have been better in my view, but I think I’m perhaps the kind of guy who likes fries AND likes chilli, but doesn’t love them together.
  • The onion rings were disappointing for me; the batter hadn’t stuck, and the onions were glistening through like an exposed femur on an animated corpse. The flecks of pepper in the batter felt like false advertising; there was little flavour to them. That said, the onions were sweet and the batter crisp… just a few (major) minuses holding it back from excellence.
  • The first bowl of sweet potato fries were sent back as they were undercooked. The second batch were cooked but still somewhat limp and lifeless, and needed seasoning to oomph up.
  • The mac & bacon (no pic, soz) was fine but bland as I always find mac & cheese variants. Probably a reasonable example of the genre, if you were someone that had tried it enough times to care to differentiate between one bold of cheese mush and another.

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The bourbontun… OMG, this was delicious. Mostly a vanillla shake, the occasional glugs of peanut butter you get are like winning a mini lottery, and the bourbon gives a background hint that you’re not just indulging five year old you (ok, mostly you still are… but totes worth it). Definitely want to have this again, and I’m lactose intolerant!

Monkey finger rating

Bun –  4/5
Build – 5/5
Burger – 4/5
Taste –  4/5
Sides – 3.5/5 – slight losses for chilli fries and sweet potato shenanigans
Value – 4/5 – £23 a head for burger, a tonne of sides & drink, & tip – not cheap but reasonable value for the quality and quntity o the food.

Burger rating – 4/5 – only really suffering from a minor umami docking and some mediocrity around the sides. It’s a good place.

The deets

The small, diner-style restaurant is halfway down Marchmont Street. Full details: Burger & Shake, 47 Marchmont Street, London WC1N 1AP Tel: 020 7837 7718  info@burgerandshake.co.uk

* This is an Eddie Izzard reference… not a weird fetish.