At Wally's Burgers, retro tastes right

For those who were here in the 1960s (and remember them), the mention of Wally’s Burgers should summon the image of a shiny, new neon sign, the red “Wally’s” part happily jumbled over the more sedate green “Burgers”. Along with the 2400 Motel and the Rickshaw restaurant, the home of the “deluxe chuck wagon” was an essential part of the neon and car-cruising Kingsway that, back in the day, symbolized this city’s working-class prosperity.

Wally’s doesn’t exist there anymore (and some might argue, neither does Vancouver’s working-class prosperity. Hello wage crunch, and beware tiered contracts, Canadian Union of Postal Workers.). Yet as much as it’s been repeatedly sold, changed, rundown, lost in a sea of competition, and finally leased out of existence in 2008, Vancouver hasn’t let go of this working-class burger joint. In 2009, Gord and Susan Bemister acquired the recipes and reopened Wally’s at Cates Park in North Vancouver. In 2010, they opened a takeout joint in a Killarney strip mall.

In time for Wally’s 50th anniversary next year, the Bemisters hope to revive the brand with locations throughout Metro Vancouver—much like Peter Toigo overhauled White Spot in the decade after 1982.

“It’s not what Wally’s was. It’s what Wally’s can become,” Gord Bemister told the Georgia Straight in a phone interview. “I have lots of customers who wanted to do this, to bring Wally’s back. But for whatever reasons, it fell apart for them.”

Bemister, a former financial controller and radio-show producer, grew up going to Wally’s. Now he keeps close tabs on who his customers are. The overwhelming majority are men, he said, and blue-collar workers. Some are hot-rodders. Some drive in from the Fraser Valley, buy up to a dozen Wally burgers at a time, and freeze them for their mid-week meals.

“The traditional Wally’s customer likes their burger swimming in sauce, and our burgers are saucy,” he said. “The new people, those who have moved away from fast food, they ask for no sauce, no relish. Sometimes it’s hard to find a balance.”

For a pre-swim meal in the park near Killarney Pool, my family and a couple of friends ordered takeout from Wally’s strip-mall location. Together we shared the halibut burger, a deluxe chuck wagon burger, a chipotle chicken burger, a few Wally dogs, some fries, onion rings, yam fries, three milkshakes (banana split, strawberry, and mango), and two bottled waters. The total was $55 for three adults and three young kids.

I imagine that this is what a burger used to taste like, before this classic North American meal went corporate in the 1970s, and then upscale in the early 21st century. It took me two visits to adjust my taste buds. The first time around, I admit I didn’t get it.

The patty is a basic, no-pedigree beef from a local butcher, and most of the flavour comes from its flattop grill browning. The bun is a basic white Kaiser from a local bakery. Sadly, the fish patty is preformed, not a fresh fillet. The chicken in the burger is two deep-fried strips; they were tasty, but there’s no pretension here.

The potato fries, onion rings, and yam fries are freshly made, firm, and chunky. And the all-dairy milkshakes make a classic complement to a greasy, salty meal.

Wally’s burgers come in a simple checkered wrapping in a paper bag. There are no brand logos screaming from the packaging, no toys with the kiddie meals, and no mitt-fulls of condiments thoughtlessly tossed in. For takeout, it’s pretty green—and feels refreshingly as though real people made it.

The second time, we tried to go for a sunny Friday night meal at Cates on June 3. When we arrived at 5:45 p.m. though, the concession was closed. Bemister later explained that the location was only open on weekends at that time. It is now open seven days a week, weather depending. He suggests calling before coming.

Finally, I had a $5.95 “loaded” Wally burger from the Killarney location, which I ate by myself at home.

Mushrooms, processed cheese, fried ham, onions, Wally’s secret relish, and mayo come on the single-patty wheel. This is a goopy, tangy mouthful.

The uniqueness is in the secret relish—a ketchupy, pickly spread that may have a hint of horseradish in it. I don’t know. Bemister wouldn’t share it with me. He said only two current Wally’s workers know that recipe: him and his wife.

Perhaps I was tasting an imaginary nostalgia of a more human, more innocently hopeful era in Vancouver, as symbolized by the old neon Wally’s; perhaps it was just the extra relish I ordered; but this burger was pretty awesome. This is not nosh for the kind of foodies who spend their weekends lining up for heritage tomatoes at Trout Lake, nor is this a wheel for those who appreciate a subtle cuisine. This is a heavy, full-mouthed eating experience.

South Vancouver is swimming in indie burger joints. Apart from Wally’s, White Spot started there, and still maintains four locations south of 25th. For gourmands, Red Onion has more recently been joined by Vera’s Burger Shack and Splitz Grill. Plus Romer’s Burger Bar opened its second location, overlooking the Fraser River at the foot of Kerr Street.

Bemister admitted that the South Van market is “saturated”, but he’s also not worried. He shouldn’t be. His once-common product is now unique in upwardly mobile Vancouver.