Three men walk into a Whataburger and spend $70 on food. It sounds like a joke, but it happened in Huntsville recently, and the men — professional comedians — were not kidding. That’s the thing about the Doughboys. They take America’s chain restaurants seriously.
Doughboys is a podcast that mixes humor with food criticism as its California-based hosts, Nick Wiger and Mike Mitchell, and a guest visit a new chain restaurant each week to offer their review. It started small, sticking to eateries in or near LA, but the Doughboys just wrapped up their first national tour, which included stops in Austin to review Torchy’s Tacos, in Houston to cover Shipley Do-Nuts and, on Dec. 2, at the Texas Theatre in Oak Cliff, where they discussed their $70 Whataburger order before a crowd of fans.
There was tension in the room, to be sure. Whataburger enthusiasts shouted out their favorite orders and booed when Wiger dared compare the restaurant to California rival In-N-Out. Would these judges, who rate each restaurant on a scale of zero to five forks, like Texas’ favorite chain?
“We are so afraid of you," the podcast’s guest, actor and comic Jon Gabrus.
The traveling critics were well aware of how much Texas loves the chain.
“We’ve been told to get Whataburger for forever,” Mitchell told the Observer in an interview before the show. “We wanted to try everything we can. We don’t want to cut any corners. We want to get the things that people like and what we like.”
“This was our one chance to go to Whataburger, and we don’t want to have one burger and fries and have that be our assessment," he said.
So they ordered, and they ordered some more. By the time Mitchell, Wiger and Gabrus walked out of the restaurant, they’d eaten a Double Meat Whataburger, two Whataburger Juniors, a Whatachicken sandwich, a chorizo burger, the Monterey Melt, the Honey BBQ Chicken Strip sandwich, a patty melt and side orders of fries and onion rings, as well as just about every condiment in the place.
Talking about his meal, Gabrus’ eyes lit up with gluttonous cheer. “They let me order whatever I want. The women behind the counter at Whataburger were like, 'Y’all gonna eat all this?' They were completely flabbergasted," he said. "The woman with the condiments was dead silent and scanning the table, like Tom Hanks in Saving Private Ryan. She saw all the aftermath.”
Luckily for Texas, the Doughboys loved Whataburger and gave it high scores: four forks from Gabrus and Wiger, four and a half forks from Mitchell. The patty melt and chorizo burger were particular favorites, as was the idea of table-to-table condiment service. (Whatachicken was the lone disappointment.) Dallas’ audience was well pleased.
Doughboys occupies an interesting space, half-humor and half-criticism, and it covers a sector of the food industry that professional critics simply don’t.
“As much as the podcast has a thesis,” Wiger said, “it’s that American food in a sense is chain food. That’s one of America’s core innovations in terms of our food culture, chains that are scalable and in some cases nationwide. That encompasses both your fast food grab-and-go and your upscale places that try to replicate a fine dining experience, but something that’s accessible at places where you otherwise wouldn’t have that option.”
“Any time we see something that looks awesome at Taco Bell, like, oh they have a chicken nugget quesadilla, we need to try that," he said. "For us, that’s food news.
“No one is above grabbing a thing of McDonald’s fries and getting in their car. I mean, our president does it.”
Wiger added, “And who’s classier than him?”
Politics has a way of cropping up on the podcast. Wiger and Mitchell use their platform to support the fight for a $15 minimum wage, and they are frustrated by what they see as a classist stigma around chains and fast food. That is especially true because just about everyone once worked in food service, maybe as a first job in high school.
“I feel like everyone has experience in that area,” Mitchell said, “and it’s crazy to ever make fun of someone now for flipping burgers when it’s as important as anything else.”
Wiger said he hopes the service industry will follow a pattern of attitude changes toward other jobs.
“Now, blue-collar workers are the salt of the earth," he said. "People who work in the manufacturing industry or who work as plumbers, now it’s considered a dignified way to earn a living. But that wasn’t always the case. That was looked down upon in a classist way, and now that’s sort of migrated over to the service industry. We just need to get over that.”
That awareness is part of why the podcast, which began as two friends chatting informally about chain food, has evolved into a cult hit with thousands of followers around the world. With that audience comes the need to try everyone’s favorite restaurants.
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Gabrus, guest on the Texas tour, found that out the hard way.
“The hardest part of it is, the first thing you want to do when you go to a new city is eat. What’s the coolest restaurant in Dallas? But also, we already had Whataburger. We had a homework meal we have to do, and then we went to Lockhart [Smokehouse] for a fun meal, so it’s two indulgent meals a day, one for work and one for play. When we go home, I’m gonna have to take baby aspirin on the flight.”
Is all the heartburn worth it for a taste of that awesome chorizo burger, a sampling of spicy ketchup?
“The first time I had Whataburger,” Mitchell said, “I really didn’t get it, and I compared it to Burger King. This was my second time having Whataburger, and now I get it. I get it.”