A creation called Meatball Salad that looks eerily like a smiley face.EXPAND
A creation called Meatball Salad that looks eerily like a smiley face.
Chris Malloy

Meatball Salad: An American Tragedy

“Meatball salad for-here, meatball salad ...”

The unlikely words echoed, magnified through the microphone of the Portillo’s Hot Dogs in Scottsdale, glancing off the kitsch and fake salamis and down my mind. "Meatball salad ..."

Meatball. Salad.

Meatballs and salad should be like oil and water, warm and cold, night and day. 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.

And yet, there I stood waiting for a meatball salad.

The kid who took my order, Brock, smiled at me. I took my foolishly long receipt and obeyed a command to wait by the salad bar. 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 fucking meatball salad.

Portillo's is a fast-food restaurant chain based in Illinois. The chain's slogan is blunt: "Beef. Burgers. Salad."

When Portillo's migrated to metro Phoenix a few years ago, Chicagoans went bananas. The lineup of hot dogs, cheddar croissants, crinkle-cut fries, and square-fish sandwiches has a fiercely loyal fanbase.

The chain has manufactured further attention with culinary creations worthy of Dr. Frankenstein. One of these, the "cake shake," is just that. The cake shake has the same troubling spirit as the Taco Bell "taco" that uses a Dorrito for a shell. That spirit is one of marketing, of fast-food joints serving bombastic food for attention.

To me, the meatball salad seemed to be a minor step in continuance of this tradition. But is the meatball salad on the same level as a taco shell redolent of radioactive nacho cheese or a beverage that tastes like liquefied cake?

Maybe. I hoped not.

Fortunately, unfortunately, my meatball standards are stratospheric. I was born into a family with a nonna and a mom who both made otherworldly meatballs. When I'm eating in even high-end restaurants with meatballs on the menu, the word "meatball" morphs into a black hole, pulling the words around it into oblivion. In my family and personal traditions, meatballs are a food to eat at home, not out, partly because that’s how things are and have been, partly because even at temples to gastronomy, the meatballs are bound to suck compared to what I’m used to.

Which is why the meatball salad at Portillo’s had no hope. The chances of me liking the meatballs from a fast-food chain are about as good as the chances of my dog mountain-biking to the moon.

And a meatball salad? Yikes.

Ah — but we must change our approach! The meatball salad deserves a fair shot. As I waited a suspiciously long time for two workers to prepare the dish — perhaps a starkly original innovation to blitz menus the world over — I kicked open the doors to my mind.

The long-awaited, perhaps-glorious meatball salad appeared at last!

Two fist-sized brown spheres sat, steamed. White-soaked greens rose behind the ‘balls.

“Let us know how it is,” a beaming teenage employee said to me, handing me a huge black tray with four cup holders. “You’re the first person to order this!”

The admission shook my confidence, demolished my fleeting state of open mind. Introduced on September 12 at 10 a.m., advertised via a huge sign with a lighted picture, the meatball salad had been on the menu for 15 hours and 10 minutes of service in the Scottsdale location of this Chicago-based fast food chain before the first sucker had ordered. And that sucker was me.

Stunned, I shuffled to a table by the window. I sat down and sized up my lunch.

Motionless on the table, the meatball salad glowed bluish in the fierce noon light.

A chemical tang wafted from the tomato sauce. The stream changed some, and a plastic sharpness of industrial cheese told me of cheap "Parmesan" cylinders.

I stalled by refreshing my email twice, then taking a picture.

There were many problems with the situation. Reduced like an all-day Sunday sauce, the web of problems simplified to this: The people who had made my food were nice, I have eaten enough to know how this was going to end, and the concept of meatball salad was unalterably repugnant.

A meatball is meat minced and balled. You can mix pretty much anything into the minced meat, and resourceful people have, for a long time, saved money by thinning the meat with filler like breadcrumbs.

Meatballs are a global food. If you think they’re Italian-American, think again. They are Mexican and Middle Eastern and Vietnamese. They are even Italian-Italian. My first ever meal cooked by an Italian family on the peninsula shivving into the Mediterranean Sea had, as its third course, good old sauced meatballs.

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. For your buck, greens provide almost zero calories for thrifty cooks to thin. Salads have never been confused with comfort food. You don’t think kale when you want to indulge (I hope).

The word “salad” is expansive. Within it, we can fry and grill and slop mayonnaise. The concept of salad has room for bacon, breaded goat cheese, and six ounces of grilled rib eye. As flexible as “salad” is, the idea of meatball salad exists beyond its generous borders. 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.

Logically, I should be able to accept a meatball salad. At that first Italian dinner, did I not have a salad course directly after the meatballs? I did. So what’s the difference between that one-two combo and a meatball salad other than the space of about a minute?

The difference is one of semantics, of naming, of common sense.

It's the same as the difference between the Patagonian toothfish and Chilean sea bass. One is unknown, the other sells for $35 a pound, and they’re the same fish.

Meatball salad is a tragedy of branding and imagination. It is a tragedy that coiled weirdly pungent steam at me as I pondered too intensely with jaunty tunes playing, eaters smarter than me sipping out of beer goblets, and orders flying through microphones — none of them for meatball salad.

I shrugged, forked up, and took a bite.

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