In our series, we send novelists out into the field to eat in restaurants and report back, as long as they file something that fits two criteria: It is a restaurant review; it is not a restaurant review. From there, they’re free to go wherever inspiration takes them.
In September, my family and I moved from Santa Monica to Irvine, Calif. If you are not familiar with the subtler gradations of cultural topology of southern California, this is approximately like moving from, say, Santa Monica to a particularly boring part of the Andromeda Galaxy. No one does this. The most common reaction we got when telling our friends about our planned move was: Oh, yeah, totally, we get it. Great schools, more house. These things are true. What they really mean, though, is why?
This isn’t a question my wife and I feel particularly motivated to answer for people—and especially not for Westside snobs who think of anything south of the 10 freeway as a faraway land in some diminished plane of reality. But if I had to, against my will, defend the choice to make this particular move, I would say that a very specific and highly sincere version of the American Dream exists in Irvine, a version sought after and tailored to certain populations of immigrants or their offspring and, as a writer who aspires to someday write something interesting about the American Dream, or something interesting about Americans and their dreams, or about fictionalized American(s) who have had dreams, Irvine is, in fact, not a place of compromise and comfort, but aspiration and imagination.
If one notices any point on any wall that is not part of a TV, one is mildly surprised and disappointed. I saw three or four little gaps where I thought they could have fit another screen. Even just an iPad.
All of which is to say, I recently took my family of American dreamers to a place called Buffalo Wild Wings. Technically, the full name of the place is Buffalo Wild Wings® Grill and Bar, although there’s no way you should call it that—it’s like a lifelong Bob suddenly telling everyone that he prefers to be called Robert. I prefer to call the place B-Dubs, or perhaps the B-Double-Dub. To be sure, there is a bar in the restaurant and, I assume, a grill, although both of those things are somewhat beside the point.
We went on a Saturday night. I told myself that this was a good compromise between the implied menace of a degenerate Friday night crowd and the likelihood of a crowded and possibly dangerous situation at a place like B-Dubs on a Sunday night smack in the fat middle of football season. Plus, what’s more American than dinner with the family on a Saturday night?
I’m not sure what I was expecting, but the restaurant simultaneously managed to exceed, disappoint, and exactly meet these expectations. People are nice. Suburban teenagers who work weekend shifts to earn extra money are, not surprisingly, even nicer. And hard-working. Expecting any different was probably kind of crappy of me. Same with the customers. Families, out for a night of heavily sauced food and earnest togetherness. Hardly anybody eats ironically. Certainly not my kids. Yes, the staff wear jerseys with the number 82. Yes, the soundtrack is nondescript dad rock that occasionally verges into something worse and better (songs we heard while eating included “Pour Some Sugar on Me” the classic Def Leppard stadium rock anthem, as well as Poison’s “Talk Dirty to Me” and Warrants’s “Cherry Pie,” both of which could have prompted some fairly delicate conversations with my inquisitive children had the music not been so loud as to basically melt, together with the background noise of the restaurant, into a kind of generalized roar of sound). Technically speaking, I suppose the music was the background noise, since the main attraction of B-Dubs is, of course, complete sensory immersion in sports. Which, on a Saturday night, means college football.
“Why are there so many TVs?” my son asked, in a voice edged with an inchoate, low-grade terror. He’s into counting things these days, so he counted 19 televisions. My daughter found another 11 to bring the total to 30. I’m pretty sure they were both wrong—the total had to have been in the triple digits. The idea, I think, is that you should be able to look in any direction and have, in your line of sight, at least one game. That’s how it all worked out in theory, back at the nerve center of the Buffalo Wild Wings corporate headquarters. In practice, the completeness of the effort resulted in a density of screens such that, if one notices any point on any wall that is not part of a TV, one is mildly surprised and disappointed. I saw three or four little eight-inch gaps between flat screens where I thought they could have fit another screen. Even just an iPad.
“Why do people keep screaming?” my daughter wanted to know, and I tried to think of a way to turn this into a larger conversation about the kind of place this was.
We didn’t order the Slammers (a “tasty trio of bite-sized burgers, loaded with cheese,” which according to the menu are not to be eaten but instead “slammed back,” “slam” being a verb not typically associated with the consumption of food and, more to the point, neither necessary nor sufficient for the proper mastication of food), although the idea of an appetizer with enough calories (1,590) to feed a grown adult for a day did seem, if not admirable, then at least noteworthy. While waiting, we passed the time creating any number of non-ridiculous combinations of shared appetizer, entree, dessert and beverage resulting in a meal exceeding 5,000 calories per person.
“Why do people keep screaming?” my daughter wanted to know, and I tried to think of a way to turn this into a larger conversation about the kind of place this was, meaning Buffalo Wild Wings® Grill and Bar, and maybe also the city of Irvine in the county of Orange, and even possibly a place called America, how this was all kind an elaborate form of play-acting in service of a communal cathartic release of the pent-up socio-economic energies of a striving middle class, but then Notre Dame scored again and it got even noisier, so I just said “Sports,” and she seemed happy with that for an answer.
Her boneless Traditional Wings (from the kids’ menu) arrived, and it appeared the kitchen staff had, in fact, poured some sugar on them, or at least into the red-orange sauce which was so thick and gobby I wanted to spread it on toast, like savory strawberry jam. My son had the Cheeseburger Slammers, also from the kids’ menu, which didn’t look like they had been slammed, exactly, although by the time my son was done with them they were more than a little roughed up. Both daughter and son commented that the food was tasty. Based on some informal sampling, the boneless Traditional Wings were slightly more popular.
My wife Michelle and I split a black bean burger with raw red onions and fresh slices of jalapeños, which was delicious, and my wife said she could imagine coming back just for that burger. While we were in the waiting area, I had noted that B-Dubs had one of those human vs. food challenges (i.e., eat this much stuff in this much time and you get a T-shirt, a stomachache, and maybe some sense of accomplishment), which have always seemed to be kind of moot, considering that the human has, by definition, already won. For some reason, Michelle thought my interest in this particular challenge (12 Blazin’ wings in six minutes or less) meant that I wanted some kind of competition that night involving my dinner and my pain threshold, so she ordered us five Blazin’ wings and another five of the Mango Habanero. According to the hierarchy of hotness, which is set out in painstaking detail on the B-Dubs menu, the Mango Habanero and the Blazin’ are no. 3 and no. 1, respectively, out of 17 total levels of pain. The hierarchy is arranged so that the spiciest are on the bottom, presumably because they are reaching down closer to Hell. When our waiter set down the wings, he said the name of each one, as if announcing a visiting dignitary from a not-entirely friendly country, and then added, “Good luck.”
After popping the first Blazin’ boneless wing in my mouth and chewing like an idiot, I actually said the words, “This isn’t that bad.” Halfway through my second Blazin’ I had finished my beer and my water and my eyes were darting around the room trying to make eye contact with a server to ask for something to drink. Maybe buttermilk or liquid nitrogen. Something cold to pour in there. I gave myself a slight reprieve by switching to the milder Mango Habanero for wing number three (mildness being very much a relative term here given that this wing is only two rungs away from the maximal punishment of Blazin’; in the words of our waiter at the end of the meal, “Oh yeah, I definitely try to stay away from any of the bottom three”).
I lost partial hearing in both ears on wing four (switched back to Blazin’). My left ear was buzzing. I had a full, healthy sweat on, which had started back on wing two and had now progressed to the point where I was figuring out if it was more humiliating to be seen sweating due to the act of eating, or to wipe it away. I stopped after wing five (final count: three Blazin’, two Mango Habanero, and upwards of a full tablespoon of ranch, consumed in desperation off of the end of a carrot stick). Michelle and I both had a slight case of chills, presumably a kind of physiological response to what our bodies were interpreting as a fight-or-flight situation. My kids looked both worried and entertained, and as we walked back to the car, I was scared about what tomorrow would bring, not only in a gastrointestinal sense, but also for my family in this new place. And yet that Saturday night, I couldn’t think of any better or more American mix of things to be than this: happy, tired, full, and a bit scared.
Buffalo Wild Wings® Grill and Bar, 14110 Culver Drive, Irvine, Calif. Telephone: 949-872-2999. Hours: Tuesday to Saturday from 11 a.m. to 2 a.m., Sunday and Monday from 11 a.m. to midnight.