CHICAGO — An Arizona restaurant critic is throwing shade at Portillo's and the beloved Chicago chain's newest concoction: the meatball salad.
In a review published this week, Chris Malloy, food editor at the New Times, an alternative weekly in Phoenix, panned the combo rolled out at the chain's restaurants nationwide earlier this month. While the bulk of the chain's restaurants are in the Chicago area, including in River North and the South Loop, Portillo's has locations outside the Midwest in Florida, California and Tempe and Scottsdale, Ariz.
For a restaurant that has been voted Illinois' favorite regional chain, the slapdown wasn't pretty.
"The concept of meatball salad was unalterably repugnant," he wrote, the dish a "tragedy of branding and imagination."
Portillo's held a launch party earlier this month to announce new fall menu items, including bratwurst as well as its take on the "Chicago-style salad." The salad features a Tuscan spring mix and chopped romaine lettuce with red onion, gorgonzola cheese and bacon. Nestled on top of all that are two of the restaurant's hand-rolled meatballs smothered in marinara sauce and parmesan cheese. The whole thing costs $8.59.
The entire combo, on its face, offended Malloy, who grew up in an Italian family, lived in Italy and even worked for an Italian restaurant for a time in Berwyn — the town outside Philadelphia, not Chicago.
"Meatballs and salad should be like oil and water, warm and cold, night and day," he wrote. "They should be two parts of the universe whose basic physical properties are inconsistent. They should be, and are, distantly separate entities that cannot be combined unless by unnatural effort."
He acknowledged that Portillo's has made a living off similar combos "worthy of Dr. Frankenstein." He disses the cake shake, Portillo's mashup of a milk shake and its famous chocolate cake, saying it's an example of a fast-food joint "serving bombastic food for attention."
He said that his standards for meatballs are high. His grandmother and mom made homemade "otherworldly" meatballs, he said. "Even at temples to gastronomy, the meatballs are bound to suck," he wrote.
Meatball salad is bound to suck even more, he wrote.
"Meatballs are an ultimate comfort food. You eat them when you want something familiar, some warm arms-open embrace of pork, lamb, beef, and/or veal flavor. ...
"Salad, on the other hand, is the near-opposite of meatballs. You don't eat salad when trying to save money or bask in soulful flavor. Salads have never been confused with comfort food. You don’t think kale when you want to indulge (I hope).
"The idea of meatball salad, even the sound of the words, strikes the conscience as foul. One cannot defeat this ugliness by force of will."
At the restaurant, Malloy lamented his assignment, which came during his first few weeks on the job as the food editor for the alternative weekly.
"Watching the assembly of my lunch, I wondered how badly I must have sucked on my first few days of work given that my boss had just sent me to eat a f-----g meatball salad," he said.
While waiting, he was told he was the first person to order it at the Scottsdale location.
When if finally arrival, he scoffed at the "chemical tang" of the tomato sauce, the cheap "industrial" parmesan and "weirdly pungent steam" wafting into the air.
The review ends, however, just as Malloy was about to take a bite.
Did he like it?
He won't say.
"I am not going to comment on how it actually tasted because that wasn't the focus of the piece. Apologies! I will say that plenty of friends and family texted me to find out, and that many New Times readers think I'm Caligula for not sharing," he said in an email.
Portillo's spokesman Nick Scarpino held out hope Friday that Malloy would at some point reveal whether he liked the taste of the salad, but said the restaurant was proud of the employees for "the friendly and hospitable service detailed in the article."
Malloy said that he was indeed impressed with how friendly the staff was at Portillo's, which was part of the reason he didn't describe the taste in his review.
Maybe the salad is a Chicago thing: On Portillo's Facebook page, many fans seemed eager to try it, although some agreed that it was unusual to see the combination.
"Only in Chicago would we put meatballs on a salad," one commenter said. "It's the Chicago way," said another.
Said another: "Classic Chicago! A salad with a half pound of meat on it! Well played!"