There has been a wave of publicity surrounding the expansion of the Chicago-based Portillo’s chain into great Minneapolis-St. Paul. The group has opened a restaurant in Woodbury with more coming down the pike, including spots in Maple Grove and (possibly) Apple Valley. The sky seems to be the limit for this Midwestern mini-empire, which sprang from now almost-mythical roots as a single charming little hotdog stand in Villa Park, Ill.
If you’re not a native Chicagoan, it’s easy to be nonplussed by the excitement over Portillo’s: “OH MY GOD CHICAGO DOGS!” Well, sure, but what about Uncle Franky’s and The Wienery? … “ITALIAN BEEF!” Uh, OK, but isn’t that just a Philly cheesesteak minus the … “CHOCOLATE CAKE MILKSHAKE!” I suppose that sounds fine? I’d certainly give it a try.
It took a visit to Portillo’s Woodbury location to actually understand the media-driven panic surrounding the chain. It’s not about the food, which is totally fine and consistent but not particularly more interesting than, say, Five Guys or Sonic.
It’s about the people. More directly, the masses of people pulsing through the restaurant, standing in lines waiting to order, standing in a mass waiting for their numbers to be called, waiting in car queues waiting to order, or piling up at the picnic-table-like seating areas throughout the massive interior of the place. It’s about the employees walking the lines and taking your order down on a paper bag that you hand to the cashier when you finally arrive. It’s about the woman barking out order numbers with a “fun-is-mandatory” rhyming scheme (“Number 322, your food is here for you!”). It’s about the dozens upon dozens of people laboring in the open kitchen to crank out dogs and sandwiches at a frantic pace.
If you’re not a people person, you’re going to hate it. But if you’re OK with crowds, the restaurant has a crackling energy that gets you fired up to order, fired up to eat, and then fired up to get the hell out. In total, the swirling mass of people and the piped-in music create an atmosphere about halfway between Cossetta’s and the Minnesota State Fair.
As for food, we took on the three bigs (Chicago-style Hot Dog, Italian Beef Sandwich, and Chocolate Cake Shake) and found ourselves adequately impressed by the culinary experience. The Hot Dog ($3) had a good snap, and it was ensconced in the traditional toppings (relish, onions, sport peppers, etc.) and smashed by the equally traditional too-large-a-slice of pickle. Better Chicago dogs can be made with a bit of char on the dog, a bit of toasting on the bun, and a heavier hand with the celery salt, but there’s nothing wrong with this one.
Likewise, the Italian Beef Sandwich with hot peppers ($5.75) filled the bill. The bun was high-quality — chewy interior, bit of a crackly exterior, tough enough to support its filling of meat and veg. We wanted more numerous and more aggressive (hotter, and more vinegared) hots in our sandwich, and we were a little put off by the fact that a by-the-book Italian beef has a lot of the qualities of a Philly cheesesteak minus the ever-so-critical “cheese” component. Next time we’ll get it with the optional mozz add-on (55 cents). But was it tasty? Absolutely.
Our Chocolate Cake Shake ($3 for a small) was a little too sugary and didn’t measure up to a great shake at Sebastian Joe’s or Hi-Lo Diner, but it’s a cut above the mediocre shakes being peddled at Shake Shack at the Mall of America, to single out another aggressively marketed finer fast food chain that seems to be seeking world dominance. The ice cream quality was good, the chocolate flavor present but not bold, and the cake mostly present as a gritty particulate that gave the shake an intriguing sense of texture and weight. In conclusion, grinding up a piece of chocolate cake into a milkshake doesn’t really improve it, but it certainly doesn’t ruin the thing, and it adds a few points for sheer novelty.
Portillo’s has character, and it has moxie, and those set it apart from the zombielike Applebee’s and Burger Kings that otherwise strangle the food scene in much of suburbia. The hype’s not totally warranted, but it’s certainly understandable.
Hot dogs and other fast food
8450 Hudson Rd
Woodbury, MN 55125
Sun-Thu 10:30 a.m.-10:30 p.m.
Fri-Sat 10:30 a.m.-11 p.m.
BAR: Beer and wine
RESERVATIONS / RECOMMENDED?: No
VEGETARIAN / VEGAN: Yes / No
ENTREE RANGE: $3-$8
NOISE LEVEL: Dull roar
PARKING: Large lot