Meals served with a side of celebrity
Faison’s Sweet Cheeks is BBQ heaven; Wahlburgers delivers burgers and fries
“Fame is a fickle food / Upon a shifting plate.’’ - Emily Dickinson
We live in the era of the celebrity chef. What does fame mean for someone who cooks for a living? It creates an automatic level of interest in his or her restaurants. It also creates an automatic level of expectation - and anticipation, when the restaurant in question specializes in a beloved American classic like barbecue or burgers.
Tiffani Faison is a chef more people know from her turn on “Top Chef’’ than in kitchens of restaurants such as Rocca, o ya, and Straight Wharf. In November, she opened Fenway barbecue restaurant Sweet Cheeks, where baby-face students, hipsters, businessmen, bromantics, senior citizens, and young couples share communal tables made from recycled bowling alley lanes. The music is loud, the drinks come in Mason jars, and the decor is streamlined - wood paneling, twinkling lights, hard surfaces. It’s her first solo project, and it’s not necessarily what one would have predicted from a chef known for high-end, nuanced preparations. Faison is a child of the South, among other places; a self-described Army brat, she lived in many locations growing up. But, she says, this food sticks with her. More chefs are moving away from the complicated gimmickry of foams and spheres, applying high levels of skill to humble dishes. Faison does a fine job of this.
At Sweet Cheeks, the barbecue is prepared in “Tootsie,’’ a 4,700-pound J&R smoker nicknamed for pit master Tootsie Tomanetz of Snow’s BBQ in Lexington, Texas. It’s the sort of cuisine that’s bound to spark debates about authenticity and regional deviation. Perhaps as Yankees we can take a bit of a pass on the barbecue politics and appreciate it for what it is: damn good food.
Meats are available by the pound, in sandwiches, or on metal trays, singly or in combination: The Big Cheeks tray offers two choices, the Fat Cheeks tray three. With one hot and one cold side, each tray is intended as a meal for one person. Portions aren’t as gluttonous as the cheeky names would have you believe. For those who view barbecue as inherently inexpensive, the prices may stick in the craw. We are paying for the ingredients, in part - Berkshire pork, halal chicken, “never ever’’ beef (no antibiotics, growth hormones, or feed containing animal byproducts). This is what happens when restaurant chefs reinterpret roadside food.
The question of whether it’s worth it can be answered on first bite. Ribs have the lacquer of a Korean chest, the meat clinging briefly to the bone, then yielding. A mouthful provokes a sort of Neanderthal joy - flesh, fire. It is smoky, but it mostly tastes like meat - spice rub is applied sparingly. Those who require sauce will find house-made mild, hot, and vinegar. They aren’t particularly distinguished, but they serve well enough as accent flavors.
Pulled pork is stupendous, fatty shreds spiked with crisp bits. Brisket is not too dry, if sliced a bit thick. Each cut is edged with dark brown bark, the meat ranging from rose to brown to fatty white, a carnivore’s rainbow. Perhaps the biggest surprise is that smoked chicken takes a starring role. The half-bird, pink from smoke and juicy throughout, has all the flavor chicken often lacks plus crackly-crisp skin.
This is meat in all its glory. The rest of the menu is just as good. There are biscuits like you’ve never had - tall, fluffy clouds served with addictive honey butter. Heavenly snacks come from the fryer: spears of okra in crisp batter; juicy, tart green tomatoes coated in cornmeal; whole smashed potatoes rendered golden brown and served in a salty, peppery clump. Sides include the most tender collard greens, enriched with pork scraps and butter, cut with vinegar. Heirloom BBQ beans are flavored with burnt ends, cumin, chili powder, and just enough brown sugar and molasses. (New England palates are accustomed to sweeter, but then there’s no cornbread here, either.) Topped with crumbs in a blue tin mug, mac ’n’ cheese is beautifully creamy but would benefit from more-assertive cheese flavor. Coleslaw is a crisp, stripped-down version, while the “farm salad’’ revisits a favorite dish Faison served at Rocca: roasted and raw Brussels sprouts, grapes, hazelnuts, farro, and arugula.
Desserts shine, too - an ethereal butterscotch pudding; a Giant Nutter Butter, two huge peanut butter cookies sandwiched together with whipped peanut butter filling and topped with coarse salt. The beer list is all American. The cocktails are sassy and made with the likes of bourbon, apple moonshine, maple bitters, and New England corn whiskey. Of course, there is sweet tea.
And there is hospitality. On “Top Chef,’’ Faison was portrayed in an unflattering light. In real life, she is both sweet and cheeky, and very much focused on her customers. She’s trained her staff to be, as well. Forgotten orders and smashed bottles of hot sauce are cleared up with tact and skill. But the real mark of Sweet Cheeks’ success is that it keeps getting better with each visit. Fame brings in crowds, but it doesn’t create return customers.
At Wahlburgers in Hingham, fame is also part of the draw. If people get excited about burgers, they get frenzied over ones from the Wahlbergs - chef Paul branched out from his nearby Alma Nove, opening this casual spot at the end of October with celeb brothers Mark and Donnie and family friend Ed St. Croix. “Our Family, Our Story, Our Burgers,’’ reads the restaurant’s tagline. TV crews and stars turned out for the opening.
The buzz creates expectation, but Wahlburgers is exactly what it claims to be, and no more. It’s a casual burger joint, decorated with wood, subway tiles, schoolhouse lights, and bright green accents. There is a bar, a blackboard with menu information written in chalk, and a ceiling installation inscribed with words such as “Southie,’’ “NKOTB,’’ and “Entourage.’’
Plenty of restaurants feature designer burgers, with meat custom blended by butchers and elaborate toppings. Wahlburgers’ are, refreshingly, just burgers. They are made from freshly ground, all-natural beef and can be configured as a single “Smahlburger,’’ double decker, or triple decker (’’a triple stack, like the house we grew up in’’). They come with lettuce, tomato, house-made pickles, onions, the Russian dressing-esque “Wahl sauce,’’ and government cheese, a.k.a. American. (This is not the only reference to the Wahlbergs’ less-privileged upbringing. Poverty as marketing tool?) For $1, customize with blue cheese, sauteed mushrooms, chili, and more.
All burgers are cooked to medium unless one specifies otherwise; servers don’t ask. Wahlburgers’ medium is closer to well done. A Smahlburger ordered with bacon, avocado, and caramelized onions features such minute amounts we momentarily think they’ve been left off.
The Thanksgiving Burger - turkey with stuffing, orange-cranberry sauce, roasted butternut squash, and mayonnaise - is a cloying combination. A BBQ bacon burger is better, topped with cheddar, bacon, avocado, and jalapenos; tangy barbecue sauce dominates. For vegetarians, there is a sandwich that substitutes a grilled portobello, very considerate. There are also beef hot dogs, satisfying links that go well with good green relish.
The side to order is the onion rings, thin-cut, in a light batter, nicely salted. Fries are a basic version; there are Tater Tots, tasty as ever, as well as too-sweet sweet potato tots. Sides arrive already cool.
Burgers call for beer, and the house Wahlbrewski is quite good. But the best thing on the menu may be Wahlburgers’ booze-laced frappes, in flavors such as gingerbread and mud pie.
Wahlburgers is a fine hangout for Hingham locals, and an after-school dream for the high school set. For Wahlberg fans, it’s destination dining. For burger fans, it’s not.