I’ve talked before about how rarely I make it to downtown Boise for food, but I make it out to Nampa even less despite the fact that one of my favorite Treasure Valley Chinese restaurants and my all-time favorite taco truck are located there. When I was just a wee lad though, we used to head out to Nampa fairly often because, well, Karcher was the only mall back then. That’s how I discovered and fell in love with the chocolate malts at Wheelers. So far as I’ve found to this very day, they still have the maltiest malts in the Valley. And their burgers? I used to describe them as “greaseburgers”. They were ridiculously juicy, the kind of thing you wrapped deli paper, napkins or anything else around while you ate it so as not to make a total mess of yourself. As I got older and Boise and Meridian really came into their own, I made the trek to Nampa less and less. Recently, Wheelers was the daily deal on Boise.biz, so I snapped one up and made the journey one afternoon after work. You know how they say you can’t go home again? Sometimes you just shouldn’t even try.
Mom decided to accompany me on this trip down Memory Lane, so myself and my resident toddler hopped into her SUV and headed out. I’m not going to lie, I was a little disheartened when I saw the place. The building wasn’t exactly pristine the last time I saw it, but now paint was flaking off and half their neon sign was out. I pushed this out of my head fairly easily, since I will readily eat at places with even severe aesthetic issues so long as the food is good. After a quick perusal of the menu, we ordered the toddler a cheeseburger kids meal, most of which ended up going to waste since she had fallen asleep on the way out there. Mom went for the Wheeler Special (cheeseburger with sauce, onions, pickles and tomatoes) with fries and a Dr. Pepper, and my bacon-addicted self settled on the Wheeler Dealer (double patty cheeseburger with sauce, onions, pickles, tomatoes and of course bacon) with tots and, of course, a chocolate malt. While our food was prepared, I chatted with the very helpful and friendly young woman who was staffing the ordering window. Some changes had been made since the last time I was there. First, you might have noticed that their sign was advertising frog legs. Second, they apparently now serve “the official BSU burger and dog“. And then there’s something called the 18 Wheeler Challenge, which apparently is a 2 lb burger that can be treated like a party sub, or if you think you can take it down yourself and you do it in the specified time frame, you get it free and possibly some other prizes as well. I can’t help but wonder what blame is going to follow Adam Richman into the history books with all of these pig-out challenges popping up everywhere.
The chocolate malt was as good as ever, and Mom’s soda had crushed ice in it, which scores major points with me. The food, on the other hand, wasn’t so endearing. Mom said hers was all right but could have used lettuce. As for mine…
|Wheeler Dealer with tater tots|
There was moisture by way of the tomatoes and condiments, but the burger itself had no juice to it. A lot of times I would just shrug and keep eating, but the juicy burgers were one of the things I loved about Wheelers. And while we’re on the subject, let me draw your attention to the tater tots. I hadn’t eaten any at this point, that’s just simply what I was given. I think there was eight of the little nuggets at most. Keep in mind that you’re not looking at a giant burger here, it’s just elongated and served on something like a hoagie roll. A little more substantial than what you’d get at most fast food places, yes, but I have a hard time seeing why that sandwich and a handful of tater tots should cost six bucks, especially without a drink.
I went home somewhat dejected, but decided that Wheelers had served me enough good meals over the years to warrant a second chance. After my issues with a couple of other burger places, I was also suffering from a little self-doubt. Had I gotten spoiled by the more upscale burger places that I’ve been eating at? Was this one of those situations where they’re cutting back due to economic strain, or that perhaps they’re focusing more on their higher-end stuff now and the old standards are slipping through the cracks a bit? There was only one way to find out.
A week later, I returned. The friendly young woman I had dealt with before was nowhere to be seen. In her place there was an older woman…I don’t want to say she was purposefully rude, but I would go so far as to call her unfriendly, or perhaps just kind of simply vacant. A void. No good humor to be found. I had decided before going that I would check out their best this time. I ordered the Bronco Burger with fresh-cut fries, another chocolate malt (of course), and a frog leg just for the hell of it. I pulled around the other side of the building to wait for my food. The price was lower than I had anticipated, so I inspected my receipt and found that my drink order had been forgotten or simply wasn’t heard. I didn’t want to put just one drink on my debit card, so I checked out my cash situation and ended up getting a vanilla Dr. Pepper. Food and drink finally in hand, I went in search of a place to park and then broke out the frog leg. Before we go any further, check out this frog leg picture from their website. Not bad, eh? Gotta love that golden color. This is what I was served:
|Frog Leg with tartar sauce|
My first thought was that, my god, they cremated the poor thing. I was sure it had to be so overly crisped that I would be risking my teeth to bite into it. Then I poked at the breading with my index finger and it was perfectly soft, so I shrugged and took a big bite. Immediately I figured out why the thing was such a deep shade of brown: old oil. Secondly, the breading was far too thick. My first bite yielded nothing but breading. I’ve never had much interest in trying frog due to my hatred of dissecting them in biology class, to the point where even thinking of frogs conjures memories of the scent of formaldehyde and poking at pickled amphibians with a scalpel. In the end, the frog leg had a texture resembling chicken and a taste resembling fish. Not bad, but not particularly appetizing either and just plain disgusting with that breading. Feeling a little like Michael Douglas in Falling Down, I junked the leg aftera couple of bites and decided to look behind door number two.
|Bronco Burger and fresh-cut fries|
The fries may have been cut fresh, but I couldn’t help but think that the limp, greasy brown things had been swimming in the same old oil as my abandoned frog leg. I didn’t get through many of them before giving up and turning my full attention on the burger at last.
|A slightly better view of the Bronco Burger|
According to the menu, this is “a third pound burger served on a Tuscan roll and garnished with your choice of sauteed onions and mushrooms, pickles, tomatoes, our special sauce, ketchup, mustard, mayo and either Swiss, smoked gouda or American Cheese”. I chose Gouda and asked them to hold back the mushrooms and give me raw onion rather than sautéed. The end result was a definite step in the right direction. The roll was very good (my luck with good hamburger buns continues!), but my first bite sent a wave of mustard, mayo, ketchup and special sauce shooting out the other side of the bun and, luckily, into the take-out container. There were so many condiments on the burger that I couldn’t even taste the Gouda, so I used a couple of french fries to scrape off some of the excess and tried again. As I said before, I loved the bread. The thick slices of pickle and tomato were also welcome, but once again the burger itself just wasn’t all that juicy. I don’t know what’s changed in their meat or the way they cook it, but what I used to love about it appears to be gone. Mind you, I’m not saying that the meat was of poor quality. On the contrary, from most fast food places this would be a damn good burger, it’s just not what I expected from Wheelers.
If I were in the area, I would definitely stop by for a malt again, because they’re just as good as ever. Unfortunately, the burgers just aren’t the same anymore. Maybe the changes were fairly gradual and the more regular customers didn’t notice, or perhaps it’s one of those situations where people eat there because they’ve always eaten there. Either way, the place has a devoted following and I expect at least a bit of hate mail about this write-up. All I can say is that I really didn’t want to write a bad review here, I wanted them to be every bit as good as I remembered. And now I’m stuck looking for another solution to my occasional cravings for a ridiculously juicy burger and some place closer to home that makes a super-malty malt. Any suggestions?
Final Grade: D+