I'm always intrigued what restaurants in places I travel to try to pass as foods that are famous in other cities. New York pizza, Memphis barbecue and Chicago pizza are three things that come to mind. Another is Chicago-style hot dogs with Vienna Beef hot dogs, topped with sweet relish, onions, mustard, tomatoes, celery salt and sport peppers on a poppy seed bun. There's a place in Minneapolis called the Wienery that serves Chicago-style hot dogs that I've wanted to try for some time. On a recent trip up to the Twin Cities, I stopped by the Wienery to give them a shot.
The Wienery is located in what is called the West Bank (a.k.a. Cedar-Riverside) area of Minneapolis, a neighborhood that is home to a number of Somali ex-patriots. Businesses that cater to Somalis dot either side of the street up and down Cedar Ave. giving the neighborhood its "Little Somalia" nickname. Along that stretch of South Cedar Avenue, the Wienery has been in the same place for 31 years. Before that, the spot was called Edna's, named after the portly woman who ran the small cafe in the shadows of the University of Minnesota and not far from Augsburg College. In 1983, Edna sold the business to Al and Jean Wohl who turned the little cafe into a Chicago-style hot dog joint. Four years later, Jerry Petermeir - a classically-trained chef who was bored with serving high-end meals to only a handful of people on a nightly basis - bought the Wienery and discovered he liked to "sling hash" more than prepare meals that are works of art.
The heavy-bearded Petermeir - who preferred Hawaiian shirts to chefs coats - brought a trained chef's mindset to the little dive. He came up with a number of hot dogs with different toppings, he used only "aged" potatoes for his French fries, and he changed his deep-fryer cooking oil daily. He ran the business for 12 years before selling the business to Ariq Johnson and Jay Olson, a couple of 20-something dudes who were longtime customers.
Things didn't work out for Johnson and Olson and they ended up selling the Wienery less than a year later to Pat Starr in a deal that was brokered by longtime West Bank neighborhood entrepreneur Peter Dodge. Starr dove head first into the restaurant and added breakfast - served any time - to the menu at the Wienery. Two years after he bought the place, Starr married his wife, KJ, and the marriage has produced three boys. Starr got her law degree in 2008, and in addition to being the co-owner of the Wienery she's a program evaluator for the Minnesota Office of the Legislative Auditor.
Pictured right - Pat Starr
It was after 1 p.m. when I finished up a visit with a dealer near the downtown area of Minneapolis and found myself parking across the street from the Wienery. (see map) The historic Cedar Theater - now known as the Cedar Cultural Center - is just down the street from the Wienery. The non-profit "Cedar" hosts a number of concerts and community events each year.
The Wienery is not large. It has about 8 stools at the counter and about a dozen seats around tables. It's rather tight in the place. The decor is, well, sort of trippy. Artwork and pictures hang on the wall behind the counter while a large blue marlin hangs on the wall opposite the counter. I understand that a customer brought it in a few years ago for Starr to put on the wall.
The kitchen is open and you can see back into the prep area. They have a small flat-top grill where they cook burgers and bacon. The burgers are flattened on the grill to give them that crispy taste. When I saw the cook making a couple burgers on the grill, I immediately decided that I would be back at some point to get a cheeseburger.
Their burger menu is interesting with one called the Selamu burger - chopped garlic and hot serrano peppers are mixed in with the beef and fried up on the flat-top grill. They also have grilled ham and cheese sandwiches, tuna melts, and Pat Starr's take on the Chicago staple - the Italian combo with pan-seared Italian beef with housemade au jus topped with a spicy Italian sausage link.
But on this visit, I was there for a hot dog. Or two. They use Vienna Beef hot dogs and Italian sausage at the Wienery, the gold star of hot dogs and Italian sausage from Chicago. And they have a number of interesting toppings that you can put on both hot dogs and Italian sausages - the Mexicali has onions, cheese, baked beans and sport peppers; the Briny has sauerkraut, dill pickle spear and giardiniera; the Upsetter has bacon, egg and cheese on top; and the Manhattan is just a straight chili dog made with the Wienery's homemade chili.
I ended up ordering a Chicago dog and for good measure I decided to try something they call the Drive In dog - a hot dog topped with cheese, chili and cole slaw. My server at the counter asked me if I wanted anything else. Had I known the fries were so good, I probably would have tried some of those. But I figure I can get them when I come back for a burger at some point.
It seemed to take a long time to get my food - over 15 minutes from the time that I ordered to the time it was sat in front of me. A group of guys seated behind me had come in moments before I came in, as did a couple and a man who I followed into the place who sat next to me at the counter who appeared to be a regular as he ordered as soon as he sat down. With just one cook and everything made to order, it was understandable.
But the wait was worth it. While the Chicago dog wasn't as big as what I'm used to getting when I go to Portillo's (click here to see my entry on Portillo's), it had that signature "snap" to the bite. The sport peppers were a little more mild than I'm used to, but the chopped onions and relish were fresh and flavorful. The pickle spear was small and didn't have that forward dill taste that I prefer. But the poppy seed bun was fresh and chewy. It was a good facsimile of a Chicago-style hot dog.
The Drive-In dog was interesting. It had a glob of cole slaw on top. The chili was reminiscent of Cincinnati-style chili with no beans. The cheese was sort of a headscratcher for me - it was dark and had the consistency of peanut butter. I couldn't quite place what type of cheese it was, but it was fine in taste. The Drive-In dog was good, but I would have rather had the Manhattan dog with just chili and onions.
The Wienery is not fancy, but the food is good and interesting. It looks a little dirty on the inside, but it's not. It's more junky and kitschy with all the stuff lying around and on the walls. But that's the charm of the place. The neighborhood is transitional, but I felt safe. The Wienery is nothing more than a little hole in the wall with interesting hot dogs and burgers. Don't think you're slumming when you go there - the food is actually a step-up from most fast food or fast-casual restaurants. It's a fun place and I can't wait to get back to get a burger at some point.