Maybe it was a dare or maybe I was curious but I felt it necessary to drop into Lachey’s bar while in Cincinnati. The show Lachey’s: Raising the Bar was an expose of the trials and tribulations of opening a sports bar in the US midwest. Of course, the Lachey brothers gained notoriety as two members of 98 degrees. Although hailing from Ohio, the quartet fled to west coast to gain fame as one of many cookie cutter boy bands that were prominent at the time. After a decade’s hiatus, they joined NKOTB and Boyz II Men as members of “the package” tour in 2013. I neither watched the show nor listened to the music (now or then) but I felt compelled to visit to see if the bar warranted the hype.
One of the first thing I noticed about the website (other than Nick’s glistening teeth) was the fact it had a rather long happy hour. One could enjoy a couple of bucks off any draft beer, wine or cocktail until 8 pm on weeknights. Although it was a Monday, I had no idea what to expect crowd wise, so I rushed my daughter so we wouldn’t arrive too late. We probably got there around 630 to a nearly empty bar. The decor was nice enough (my daughter specifically asked me point out how nice the washrooms…err…restrooms were) and we waited and watched one of the many televisions before a somewhat disgruntled waitress came by to take our order. There was no mention of the happy hour or any half price appetizer. I asked about a specific beer and she had no idea where it was from although she did look it up later.
Food wise, we ordered Not Your Nana’s Meatballs ($9), the chicken tenders ($9 plus $2.50 for the tots) and the hair of the dog burger ($12.50 plus $2.50 for the tots). The meatballs were dry and cold (so they clearly were not my Nana’s. The chicken tenders were a bit overdone and the sauces (honey mustard and house BBQ) were mediocre and although I didn’t try the burger, reports from the table were that it was pretty good. The tots were ok.
Hair of the Dog Burger $12.50 plus $2.50 for tots
Chicken Tenders $9 plus $2.50 for tots
Not your Nana’s meatballs $9 with no option for tots for $2.50
When I got the bill, there were $2 off my pints as promised although I felt there was a bit of souvenir pricing for the food.
I came to Lachey’s with an open mind and free of any angst caused by exposure to boy band music in my younger years. Despite this, I was generally disappointed by the experience. The chicken tenders with accompanying sauces were average and the meatballs weren’t even 98 degrees. The happy hour beer was a steal but the food was a bit pricey. Service wise, the waitress might as well sung “Was it something I didn’t say?” because she didn’t say much. Unfortunately, in the end, I didn’t leave the place humming “Thank God I Found You”.
I suppose if you have the last name Wahlberg, it makes sense that you throw your at into the burger business, especially where you are backed by two pop culture icons who have graced the big and small screen as well as the music business for 25 years.
Wahlburgers recently opened its first Toronto franchise along side the SOHO hotel on Blue Jays Way. I immediately thought a few things when I entered the place for the first time:
This place is pretty big.
What a hideous shade of green.
Why are the staff acting like I’m in a Parkdale eatery instead of a downtown tourist trap? A black shirt or a cardigan should not make one better than me.
I was seated quickly and ordered a pint. At this point I realized it’s quite hard to get a pint from the burger based joint and be able to watch a tv at the same time. The adhere to a list of local brews on tap and also feature the Wahlbrewski North which is brewed on contract by a local brewery. The price range is $7-7.50. I really had no interest in the $12 adult cocktails (although I will give them credit for using clamato instead of tomato juice in their Caesars..it looks like they did their homework). Their $15 adult frappes look sickly sweet and look as if they would appeal to teens with fake IDs and those who feel comfortable drinking as many calories as they are about to eat (what the hell is whipped cream liquor anyway).
The menu is mainly burgers with the typical sides (salads and fries) but you can also get a portobello burger, a sandwich made of turkey with all the fixings and typical offerings off a kid’s menu if necessary. I ordered the BBQ bacon burger with the sauce in the side. In addition I ordered a side of famous Wahl sauce which is normally served with some of the other burgers on the menu. As a side, we split the fries and an order of tater tots.
While you’re waiting you can watch a montage to the Wahlberg brothers (Donny, Mark and the other guy) on a loop (including new and old footage and plenty of references to the A&E show) which runs on the televisons in strategic positions set throughout the restaurant. Otherwise, you can also read the wordle-like large poster which lists all of Mark’s movies in the event it’s a trivia question or a dinner party conversation starter sometime in the future.
The burger was decent. The patty was not overcooked although I would have been happy if it was closer to medium. The bun/patty ratio was good. I enjoyed both sauces but was glad I didn’t ask for either directly on the burger since I think a little too much would have cut into the taste of the burger overall. The clothespin was a bit woody….but probably better than the fries (see below).
The sides were horrible. The “naturally cut” fried clearly didn’t mean freshly cut and the tater tots were “just like I remember them”…over salted and greasy potato sponges. Given the fries I get can get at other joints for about the same price, these were an embarrassment at $3.50 each.
I will be interested to see the fate of Wahlburgers in Toronto. It has a bit of an identity crisis. I mean, where else can you grab a $7.50 pint to go with your slice of government cheese? Despite the celebrity endorsement, it sill likely be more geared toward a sports fan than it will a patron of the SOHO itself. It’s saving grace may the fact you can get a decent burger at a decent price in a place where dad can have a beer, mom can ogle Marky Mark’s abs and the kids can eat hot dogs and shitty french fries (I swear as long as there’s ketchup there’s no such thing as a bad fry to a child) and wonder why they can’t have a $15 drink called blueberry pie…all at a location within walking distance of a Jays game. Otherwise the tricky parking and popularity of numerous other burger joints in the area may make it an ongoing struggle.
Personally, I I think I could replicate my experience at Wahlburgers with a green sharpie highlighter, a pound of decent ground beef, a Kraft single, a bag of McCain fries or tater tots and a toaster oven; all while watching Muchmusic retro while I talk to my annoying hipster cousin on speaker phone.
With other burger joints like Burger’s Priest, P & L burger and other options like Hero and Five Guys in town, I think this new kid will get knocked off the block pretty quick.
Perhaps it’s fitting I’m typing this as I fly over the Western plains toward San Francisco. Home of the Brave are the four words which tell you the Star-Spangled banner is over and is usually held for about 16 bars while some celebrity exercises their creative right to make the song their own. It is also the title of a 1988 Toto song, perhaps a patriotic attmept to recreate the success they had in the early 80’s with the Grammy winning album IV featuring the song of the year Rosanna as well as Africa. The phrase is synomonous with the USA, so it seems an appropriate name for a snack bar which celebrates Amercian culture and cuisine. Such a concept may be a daunting task however. There is nothing universally consistant with American food. Each region adheres to a philosophy and a stubbornness which is much an identity as an local accent. That said, gravy is pretty close.
Toronto’s homage to our southern neighbours sits hidden among King Street favourites Lou Dawg’s, Lee and Wurst. Relative to other eateries, it about the size of Vermont, boasting a reasonably sized bar, a number of tablesand booths and even a few “patio” seats which overlook the King Street scene. I was quickly greeting by the bartender who offered me a bar seat. I sat and looked around. A bustling open kitchen was nestled in the corner. The bar area was decorated with American paraphernalia including references to many of the urban centres which make the USA the diverse and interesting country it is. From a drink perspective, they adhere to the American way. They feature beer, wine and cocktails all produced or inspired by America. There are even a few cocktails created through feedback from the guestbook of American visitors. I was in the mood for a pint, so I opted for an $8 Sam Adam’s Boston lager which was frankly the only palatable beer on the draught list. They do carry a few bottles from the historic Anchor brewery in the city I was in flight towards. The vibrant beer scene in the USA is misunderstood by so many Canadians who simply say “All American beer is water” and HOTB reinforces this misconception by offering crap like Coors Light and Rolling Rock as essential American suds.
The menu is everything you would expect in a stereotypical American eatery, offering eats like Philly steak sandwiches, chicken and waffles and Maryland Crab Cakes. In addition, almost every dish, including vegetables, contains one of the three components of the America culinary trilogy: Gravy, sauce, cheese or a combination of two or three. In celebration of Napoleon Dynamite and his home state of Idaho, I was obliged to try the tater tots complete with the obligatory cheese AND gravy. They were nasty, delicious chunks of what seemed like deep fried mashed potatoes which sitting in a shallow pool of fat.
It was wing night (which means they serve wings…not the fact you get them for $0.36 each or whatever the going discount rate is) and I thought nothing could be more American than sucking back a pound of chicken parts. The flavour of the night was Tex-Mex mole, a celebration of the Mexican influence on United States cuisine. They came out quickly, doused in the promised spicy chocolate sauce and yes….topped with another sauce (sauce on sauce is Amercian food porn at its best). The taste was quite acceptable and manged to marry the two southern flavours quite effectively. My only issue was the heavy breading on the wings. Perhaps it’s a dedication to American art of deep frying everything, but I would have prefered the naked wing approach, especially with the rich flavour of the abundant sauce. My plasma might have been a little happier with me without the breading as well.
I was feeling a little guilty so decided to try and balance things out with a little dose of a vegetable. Asparagus was in season, so I got an order. Surprise… it was served with cheese and mushroom gravy. I can’t complain about the taste or the cook on the asparagus..both were terrific but my guilt was hardly stifled as the nutritional value of the green spears was negated by the other ingredients. The portion size, however, was not American because there was no way I could feed 4 people with this serving of “veggies”.
I passed on dessert even though two of my biggest vices were being offered; ice cream sandwiches and funnel cakes. I also passed on a very intriguing cobb salad served with a whole egg served in a half avocado, a concept I have since adopted into my homemade Cobb.
Despite horror stories I had heard about the service being similar to the treatment of a gay couple at a misguided and ignorant Rick Perry rally, I found the service prompt and friendly. The atmosphere was fun and vibrant and I loved the open kitchen concept. Given the shitty beer selection and the pledge of allegiance to cheese and gravy, I’m still trying to figure out if the owners intend HOTB to be an reasonable facsimile of the American eatery or a parody of the plated gluttony which plagues our neighbours to the south. If it’s the latter I think it’s a brilliant joke. If it’s the former, it’s a stereotype worse than Canadians living in igloos. I mean, not everybody in American puts added fat on everything, right? Sure, a rib-sucking Texan may cherish the menu but I’m sure a clean eating Californian would cringe at the fact that this place even manages to make asparagus unhealthy. In the end, Home of the Brave is a fun rendition of American food. I wouldn’t, however, bring your vegan sister, a skinny first date or your dad if he’s on a statin. I would, however, bring a good old Ontario health card just in case. I don’t think Obamacare is ready for this place.