From the outside, Spudwinkles Deli doesn’t look promising. It’s in a former Mexican fast-food spot on Rosedale Street in the Hospital District, with a couple of tables outside, where you’re likely to overhear orders from the drive-through.
Inside, it’s small: Take one step in, and you’re at the ordering counter. There are seven tables, each of them adorned with a Mr. or Mrs. Potato Head, a touch that might make you feel a little guilty should you opt for one of Spudwinkles’ nearly football-sized baked-potato entrees.
But then, if barbecue joints can be decorated with happy neon pigs who obviously don’t know their fates, why can’t a potato-themed restaurant have watchful Potato Heads?
But there is more to this tiny place than meets the eye — or, since we’re talking about potatoes, eyes. There is, in fact, more than meets your eyes when you first lay them on the menu behind the counter, where you’ll find not just “Ginormous Spuds” but “Kickadillas,” pastas, panini and deli favorites.
There’s not much description on the menu board, so if you’re a rookie, pick up one of the more detailed takeout menus on the counter.
There, you’ll learn that the COWch Potato is a baked potato topped with shredded brisket, barbecue sauce, cheddar and Jack cheeses and butter, all for $7.69.
If this is your first time, brace yourself for potato shock: The menu is not kidding about “Ginormous.”
The brisket might not be at barbecue-snob level, but it was meaty and plentiful, the sauce tangy as advertised, the cheese melty and generous. But it has a lot of territory to cover, so try to pace yourself: If you run out of topping, you’ll run into nothing but potato, which is a little less exciting once the toppings are gone.
A friend who had the “Whiz-Bang” ($7.29) did a better job of pacing himself with this chili-cheese potato (topped with Spudwinkles’ “Whiz-Bang” chili, which is available as a separate dish).
The chili was well-seasoned, spicy without being tongue-burning, accented with red-onion slices that held their own among the other ingredients without competing with them.
“Every stab, scoop or scrape of potato came with some topping,” he says, obviously having mastered the art of eating massively garnished ginormous spuds.
A half-dozen other baked potatoes are on the menu, from the meatball-festooned Cloudy Spud to the vegetarian Veggies Gone Wild (bell peppers, okra, tomatoes, shiitake mushrooms, red onions, butter and feta). The basic Spudwinkle is $6.99; the COWch Potato is at the other end of the potato price range at $7.69.
And they will not leave you hungry.
Touring other parts of the menu, a pulled-pork “Kickadilla” ($7.29) lived up to its name: This was an, um, ginormous quesadilla, a spinach wrap stuffed with marinated pulled pork and the cheddar/jack mix, accompanied by guacamole, pico de gallo and sour-cream dips.
A couple of triangles were layered atop another, larger triangle, and the pork had a satisfying kick. But that lower triangle soaked up a lot of juices, making a fork necessary for about half the wrap.
The Mammoth Rue ($8.29) — are you getting the idea that servings are big here? — was a pretty traditional take on a Reuben, with a half-pound of corned beef, Swiss cheese and some of the most potent sauerkraut I’ve ever had (and I’m half-Czech, so I’ve had a lot of sauerkraut).
The Cloudy Pasta ($7.39) — which gets its name from its 100 percent chance of meatballs — was not stingy with the meatballs accompanying the al dente penne, or with the strips of garlic bread that topped it. Note that price — although this is a pretty basic dish, it cost less than half as much as an equally basic pasta plate I’d had at a (relatively) fancier Italian restaurant recently, and to be honest, the meat was better at Spudwinkles.
Counter staff is friendly, and attentive after you’ve chosen your table, without being obtrusive. There’s a boisterous vibe that comes from the kitchen, as well.
It might not be anything fancy, but the food is good and inexpensive, more ambitious than you’d expect without overreaching.
Don’t let your eyes deceive you when they spot this place.