May 16, 2022

AmericanHummus

Food & Travel Enthusiast

Stars like DJ Khaled and Steve Aoki have Bay Area restaurants now. They’re all uniquely terrible

One fateful day in 1995, pro wrestlers Hulk Hogan, Macho Man Randy Savage and Jimmy Hart gathered in the sleek steel-and-glass rotunda of the Mall of America, in the midst of a screaming crowd and spotlights glaring like precisely cut diamonds. They were there to promote the Hulkster’s newest restaurant venture: Pastamania, a place where fine Italian cuisine and pro wrestling could commingle at last. Short of taking on the Giant in a steel cage match at SuperBrawl VI in 1996, the restaurant was perhaps the riskiest of the Hulkster’s career moves.

All that flash for a place that ended up closing in less than a year, little more than a nano-size blip on the world’s culinary radar.

I thought of this display of opulence in Minnesota as I considered the modern version of celebrity restaurants. These days, the idea of a star-studded culinary experience is most visible in low-touch endeavors — like the “collaborations” of McDonald’s with musicians like Saweetie and Mariah Carey, or ghost kitchens, which to consumers exist only online. DJ Steve Aoki sells pizza, while DJ Khaled has wings. Comedian George Lopez hawks tacos, and Pauly D of “Jersey Shore,” also a DJ, boasts subs. Mr. Beast, a 23-year-old who’s made millions as a YouTube star, has embarked on a burger spot. All of these are delivery-only operations.

Ghost kitchens are ideal for the celebrity restaurant concept because, like celebrity itself, they primarily exist as a projection, a brand that you can pretend is your friend. Out-there dish names, like B*tch Don’t Grill My Cheese and F#ck Gluten, are designed to make you stop scrolling through seemingly endless listings on delivery apps. They tell you as much about the food as an online dating profile can tell you about a person.

I decided to try the three that are available locally: Pizzaoki (from Aoki), Another Wing (from DJ Khaled) and MrBeast Burger (from the YouTuber also known as Jimmy Donaldson). I hoped that the attempts would reveal that, yes, DJ Khaled did have some talent somewhere, if not in music then perhaps in the kitchen; or that, at the very least, these concepts would appeal as food according to a basic dictionary definition of the word.

Spoiler: They largely failed in every regard.

Among celebrity ghost kitchens, Pizzaoki, which debuted in Los Angeles in 2018, is the elder statesman of the bunch. Conceived by Aoki, an American DJ and son of Benihana founder Rocky Aoki, the allegedly New York-style pizzeria offers dough infused with a mix of “lit herbs,” with pies topped with “Mama Aoki’s pizza sauce” and a proprietary blend of mozzarella cheeses. To make dinner a totally immersive experience, I put on a Steve Aoki YouTube playlist, lowered the lights and activated a multicolored light orb in my kitchen. If you order from here, I suggest that you do this mostly so that you don’t have to meaningfully consider the pizza, which is horrible.


A No-Beef Veggie Pizza from Pizzaoki is seen in San Francisco on Thursday, January 20, 2022.


Nick Otto / Special to The Chronicle

Pizzaoki

Pizzaoki


Soleil Ho / The Chronicle / Soleil Ho / The Chronicle


Left, the No Beef, a vegetable pizza from Pizzaoki; right, a colorful pizza box from the virtual restaurant. (Nick Otto / Special to The Chronicle; Soleil Ho / The Chronicle)

The vegetarian pizza, No Beef ($18.99), was built on a thick and dense crust that was overcooked in some places and undercooked in others. I’m not sure what “lit” means in a culinary sense here, but I detected nary a leaf of oregano nor cannabis, if that’s what he was going for. The pie was bland yet overloaded with toppings: thick-cut red bell peppers and red onion, button mushrooms and black olive that stank of aluminum. Carelessly cut, the pizza’s wedge-shape slices had to be reluctantly ripped free, like an old vine stuck to a wall. It was actually insulting to have to try so hard to eat something so bad.

Another pie, the Jaleo ($21.99), was marginally better, if only because the toppings of sliced jalapeño and pepperoni were more sparsely applied. Though the crust was apparently the same, it was thinner and more golden, like it was from a different kitchen. The tinny flavor of the tomato sauce became more pronounced, evocative of school lunch pizzas. At $21.99, the 12-inch pizza is expensive even for San Francisco, where you can get a fantastic, scratch-made pie from a spot like Pizzetta 211 for around $15. I don’t know what you’re paying for here — perhaps the pretty red-and-yellow box?

DJ Khaled’s chicken concept, Another Wing, was even more disappointing, though the packaging, accented with the teal and pink of a Miami strip club, was nice to look at. Another Wing, which launched in November, offers fried chicken wings, tenders and waffle fries, available with a broad selection of punny dipping sauces named after the DJ’s oeuvre: I Ain’t Regular Ranch and Un Un Un Believable Buffalo among them.

The bright teal and pink branding of DJ Khaled's Another Wing evokes Miami.

The bright teal and pink branding of DJ Khaled’s Another Wing evokes Miami.


Soleil Ho / The Chronicle / Soleil Ho / The Chronicle

Another Wing (from DJ Khaled)
Another Wing (from DJ Khaled)
Soleil Ho / The Chronicle


DJ Khaled’s chicken concept, Another Wing, is disappointing, though the packaging, accented with the teal and pink of a Miami strip club, is nice to look at. (Soleil Ho / The Chronicle)

You know how sometimes you can taste the suffering in a dish? Tragedy was the main note in the six-piece wing set ($9.85). The flesh in the fried wings was withered and mummy-like requiring lingering dips in sauce to rehydrate. The waffle fries ($3.95) were the other end of the texture spectrum, thanks to a long steaming session in a sealed container. Any takeout restaurant worth its salt will punch holes into containers of fried food to prevent this, so the fact that a takeout- and delivery-only fried food concept can’t do that is inexcusable.

If someone is forcing you to eat something from this place, opt for the breaded tenders ($8.95 for four), flavored with seasoning salt and nicely moist inside. That said, you would save money and expend only the smallest amount of effort by simply purchasing a bag of frozen tenders from the grocery store and baking them yourself.

Finally, the most inscrutable concept on my list was MrBeast Burger, a restaurant from a YouTube creator known for giving away money. The concept, debuted with 300 locations in December, is inspired by a stunt where Donaldson and his team opened a one-day pop-up restaurant where they tucked wads of sponsor-provided cash into takeout bags and gave away a car. (If you’re totally lost, just imagine Oprah Winfrey’s favorite things giveaways, cranked up to the nth degree.)

The menu features beef and Impossible meat in various basic configurations named after Donaldson and his creative team. Beast Style ($9.49) is a saucy double smashburger layered with ketchup, American cheese and brown mustard. It rests on a base layer of nearly a quarter-cup of mayonnaise mixed with chopped cucumber pickles, creating a sauce that dampens any crispness the cook might have worked to achieve on the grill. The components swirl into a vinegar-forward meat paste as you chew.

MrBeast Burger's Beast Style is a saucy double smashburger layered with ketchup, American cheese and brown mustard.

MrBeast Burger’s Beast Style is a saucy double smashburger layered with ketchup, American cheese and brown mustard.


Nick Otto / Special to The Chronicle

A Nashville Hot Chicken Tender Sandwich from MrBeast Burger are seen in San Francisco on Thursday, January 20, 2022.

A Nashville Hot Chicken Tender Sandwich from MrBeast Burger are seen in San Francisco on Thursday, January 20, 2022.


Nick Otto / Special to The Chronicle


The components of the Beast Style Burger swirl into a vinegar-forward meat paste as you chew. The Nashville hot chicken sandwich doesn’t fare well either. (Nick Otto / Special to The Chronicle)

The Karl’s Deluxe ($8.49), a patty melt-style burger, was accompanied only by American cheese and lightly caramelized onions. Its top bun was flipped with its cut-side out, bared like the vulnerable and vaguely dangerous-looking underbelly of a cat. The doughy burger seemed to shrink away in shame as I looked at it. It’s all made worse by the fact that MrBeast’s business model includes a savior element: Any restaurant can apply to serve the burgers, something that MrBeast’s marketing suggests is his way to help small businesses earn income. If the work of “saving restaurants” was always this painful, we’d be lucky to have any left at all.

The celebrity ghost kitchen is fascinating in its contradictions. The dishes are decked out in colorful and over-designed regalia of individuality, yet the contents are incredibly generic. It’s pizza that tastes institutional; wings and chicken tenders fried fresh out of freezer bags; and floppy burgers in cute boxes. If this is one aspect of the future of food, we don’t have much to look forward to.

These restaurants were not created for people who like to eat. At Pastamania, it was clear from the get-go that the pasta was just an excuse to get Hulk Hogan’s name in front of new eyes. It was enough for him to just open a spot in the Mall of America, just like being able to have the “world’s most ambitious restaurant launch” in Miami, New York, Paris, London and Dubai was justification enough for DJ Khaled to create Another Wing. But considering what you get in exchange for these stars’ ambitions, it all just feels like a con.


Soleil Ho is The San Francisco Chronicle’s restaurant critic. Email: [email protected] Twitter: @hooleil