All these newfangled, so-called “Instagram-worthy” restaurants are going to someday run into a problem. Once all of the “influencers” have come through, gotten their perfectly-filtered photos under perfect light at a perfect angle, and moved on – and they will move on, because another “Instagram-worthy” restaurant just opened and now they must photograph their food – and the few followers who saw those photographs, and the few of those few who actually act upon it, have come through and moved on – and they will, because their influencer of choice was just at another spot and they must follow him or her there now – that kind of business, methinks, will dry up and all of those perfect pictures will be less of an influence and more of an epitaph.
The food at Portillo’s Hot Dogs in Woodbury is not sexy. The staple item is a Chicago Dog with everything on it, including a gigantic pickle slice that would not sit properly on top of the damn thing. The cheeseburger, I swear, they just put the toppings on that sucker with no regard whatsoever to the sensitivities of a square photograph. The beef sandwich, if you get it with extra gravy, has its gravy soaked into the bun and the meat. The second you touch it, gravy soaks into your soul. The pasta, it’s hard to say. I took it to go, and the way I drive is not particularly conducive to food “not being tossed about.” It’s full of cheese, full of sauce, and just a hot mess.
But Gawd, it’s delicious. It’s not expensive, and the atmosphere’s fun. If the wait for your food starts to get to you, you can just walk up to a side counter and order a beer. It’s an experience you can’t simply see. You have to have it. Then, once you’ve had it, you have to have it again.
I’m so excited to be back on the east side, I declared this week Woodbury Week at The Minnesota Skinny. Monday, I put the city on notice. Tuesday, I introduced you to my new Official Dolphins Bar. Today, let’s meet Portillo’s 50th location. It’s Minnesota’s first, but the invasion has only begun. Let’s step inside.
The Basics: It all started back in 1963 when Dick Portillo opened The Dog House, a hot dog stand the size of a literal dog house. According to legend, Portillo ran a hose 250 feet from a nearby trailer so his stand could have running water. The business grew, and grew, and grew, and now Portillo’s is nationwide. Woodbury’s location is Number 50 for the empire. It’s the first in Minnesota, but it won’t be alone for long – two more are on the way.
Signs, signs, everywhere there’s signs!
Think of Portillo’s interior as a gigantic to-do list. Have you had the award-winning ribs? Have you had the super cheese burgers? How about the chocolate shake? How about the chocolate cake? The irresistible cheese fries? The chili that speaks for itself? On the way to the register, you see signs advertising their “Famous Five.” If you spend too much time processing all this while you’re trying to order, you’re liable to lose yourself and order the whole menu at once. My suggestion: come with a plan.
Start with the hot dog. It’s what built the place. The hot dog is very Chicago: poppy seed bun, the above-referenced kayak made of pickle, peppers, slices of tomato, and relish – the real, neon green-ass relish, too, not the pickle applesauce crap most places peddle. The cheeseburger is a pocket-sized Double Dare obstacle course, complete with onions, thick tomato slices, lettuce, and ketchup. Cheese is extra, but what’s another 55 cents and 90 calories? Get the cheese.
This isn’t a burger you eat on the road, that’s for sure, unless you’re seeking vengeance on your steering wheel. Hunker down at the table with this one, and hope nobody’s watching too closely as you surgically insert the last third into your mouth because everything is falling apart and there’s no other way. Make sure you grab napkins on your way to the seat. There will be too much for the side of your hand. Then again, eating the napkin for maximum flavor consumption might not be the best look, either. I’ll leave that to you to figure out.
Did I mention the beer?
Oh, and beers are $1 off during Octoberfest. This man-made pond of Sam Adams Octoberfest was $4. You don’t come here to eat light. You don’t come here to drink light, either, and I don’t just mean beer: a man was giving away free shakes the night I stopped in.
The Big Beef sandwich gets its message across with no superfluous details, like a billy club to the head – which, when wrapped, the Big Beef sandwich could very well be if swung properly. Getting it with extra gravy will yield extra gravy, so much that gravy drips out and you can dip your sandwich in the gravy puddle that forms underneath it! If Penn and Teller still think recycling is bullshit, they haven’t been to Portillo’s. I was properly full after half, but did I eat the other half anyhow? You bet I did!
All that work, and the surface has but barely been scratched. I haven’t had the award-winning ribs, or the irresistible cheese fries, or the chocolate shake, or the chocolate cake, and I couldn’t speak for the chili. Yet. I will speak for them all someday. We all will. That’s why Portillo’s is perpetually as busy as you might expect them to be on their opening week.
Adele once famously said during an interview, “I love seeing Lady Gaga’s boobs and bum. I love seeing Katy Perry’s boobs and bum. Love it. But that’s not what my music is about. I don’t make music for eyes, I make music for ears.” Portillo’s doesn’t make food for Instagram. Portillo’s makes food for taste buds and stomachs, just as they have for over 50 years. They don’t need any more influencing than their food can do on its own.