How Much is that Doggie in the Window – Portillo’s, Chicago

Portillo's, Chicago IL - chicago style dog
LAX 2 ORD, no. 5

With an abbreviated stay in Chicago on my trip out to the Midwest, I thought I was being exceedingly clever by working in breakfast as an additional meal on my gastronomic mini-tour of the Windy City. Foiled first by Hot Doug’s, and then again by Fluky’s in the mall food court on the first day, I resolved to eat a quintessential Chicago hot dog for breakfast. So? We eat breakfast sandwiches before 8 am, right? And with all those “vegetables,” a hot dog has got to be better for you than a greasy sausage biscuit with egg and cheese.

I vaguely recalled that the night before, The VIP had mentioned both Al’s #1 Beef (make no mistake by leaving out that “#1”) and Portillo’s as possible daytime dog stops. Wow. I guess I wasn’t as buzzed as I thought! With a cup of complimentary coffee I had brewed in the in-room Barbie Brew-for-Blondes, I flipped through the stack of hotel-provided guest guides. If you’ve ever seen these guest guides, you know that they are absolutely worthless because one, 99.9% of the pages’ real estate is dedicated to advertisements for B-list tourist traps, and two, the previous guest took the liberty of tearing out the 0.1% of useful information to hoard for himself – the maps. Hope he uses them to find his way to one of this hateful tourist traps. LOL!

Eventually, with the help of a small electronic fruit, I found information for both Portillo’s and Al’s #1 Beef.

Drat! Foiled again! Both places don’t open until 10 am. 10 am isn’t breakfast anymore. 10 am is brunch. It’s practically lunch. If I were to eat a hot dog at 10 am, and that’s assuming that either Al or Mr. Portillo have hot dogs ready to go and waiting for me at ten o’ clock on the dot, I wouldn’t be able to eat Italian Beef until…counting the choleterol out now…at the very earliest, until 2 pm. That pushes back my mid-afternoon snack of pizza out to 5 pm, and…drat. My whole plan would be off by three hours. One little hot dog glitch had set off a whole exponential cascade of dining delays and I didn’t know how to get it back on schedule. Thank goodness I’m not an air traffic controller or we’d still be landing flights from 1997.

I made the ultimate sacrifice. It had to be done. I would postpone deep-dish pizza for another day. Not cancel completely, but postpone.

We picked Portillo’s over Al’s #1 Beef because even though they both do hot dogs, Al’s Beef might come in handy later for Italian beef. Portillo’s also had a slight margin because on the outside, it looks like a regular restaurant, which seemed more appropriate for brunch/lunch, as opposed to an open air stand. That actually makes no sense whatsoever, so the bottom line was, Portillo’s came up first on the horizon as we walked up the street.

portillo's, chicago, il - ceiling at ontario/clark location
kitschy kountry land
portillo's, chicago, il - order line
almost a mob scene

It may look like a nice, normal restaurant on the outside, but once you step through those doors, it’s like you’ve walked into a displaced Disneyland theme area once called 1930s-Kitschy-Kountryland that had been swept up by a tornado and plopped down onto the corner of Clark and Ontario in Chicago. It opens up to the second floor, with second story air space taken up with all kinds of themed “things” that hang from the ceiling – a farmer, a barn door, a clothesline draped with longjohns – it’s a lot of stuff. Stairs lead up to second story balcony seating around the perimeter that supplements the tables and chairs in a picket-fenced off “picnic-area.” The restaurant is set up almost like a food court, with different counters for Italian sausage, something else I can’t remember, and of course, hot dogs, all of the windows decked out in the same kitschy theme decor and screaming out in every manner of gaudy neon.

portillo's, chicago, il - kitchen
is that mine? that one?
portillo's, chicago, il - line prep
lightning fast on the dog line

As early as it was, there was already a sizable crowd of people waiting. At first glance, and assaulted by all the other sensory stimuli upon walking into Portillo’s, the mob undermined any hope that I had of eating a hot dog as close to breakfast as possible. But Portillo’s has their system down, and the controlled chaos move quickly through the chains. If you already know what you want, you can tell one of the uniformed women waiting there at the end of the line, and she will write the order for you on a red and white paper bag. This is the “order” you hand to the cashier once you reach the counter. Even if you are still deciding as you shuffle through the line, you can place your order directly with the cashier at the register. You pay, scoot sideways along the kitchen, peering through the sneeze guard to catch a glimpse of your lunch, then wait at the pick-up end of the counter with about two dozen other anxious customers, all of whose orders look and sound almost exactly like yours.

portillo's, chicago, il - doggie bag
a real doggie bag
portillo's, chicago, il - chicago-style dog
a chaotic mess of condiments

I had requested to dine-in, but instead of a tray to balance up the stairs to the second floor (for the view), our all-beef hot dogs with every condiment under the Chicago sun were wrapped up and ready to go in the same red and white paper bag that had been used to take the order. See? Their system at work.

I unwrapped the hot dog and marvelled at the beautiful mess of mustard, relish, onions, tomatoes, a pickle spear along one side, and peppers along the other, covering the hot dog and nestled in the cracks between the meat and poppyseed bun. This is my f
irst
Chicago-style hot dog in Chicago. The hot dog was a hot dog, no doubt, but I loved that my Chicago-style hot dog had all those accessories. Isn’t it strange how some people shiver with excitement when they slip into $10,000 worth of platinum and diamonds and all it takes for me is biting into a $2 hot dog dripping with condiments? The only thing I didn’t love was the bun, which I found out later is steamed. It was too soft and squishy, almost rendered to a floury paste at some points.

Still, that’s how they make them in Chicago, and I wouldn’t have it any other way. Even in LA. Not until after I got back to LA did I find out that Portillo’s has opened a location in Buena Park – not quite Disneyland, but Knott’s Berry is close enough LOL!

Portillo’s Hot Dogs
100 West Ontario Street (@ Clark)
Chicago, IL 60610
312.587.8910
www.portillos.com

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  • Anonymous

    how funny…my coworker just asked me if I’ve heard of Portillo’s since they just opened one in Buena Park!

    Excellent hot dog..well worth walking 2 hours over two days to find a “real” chicago dog! ;)

  • Anonymous

    If you didn’t want to go into a mall food court, you didn’t do any better by going to Portillo’s. There’s one in Orange County.

  • sarah

    *sigh* i know. if i had known, i totally would have used my brunch chicago dog opportunity for one of the others, but i have to admit that as much as i loved my hot dog at portillo’s i can’t exactly see how different it would be if i had gone somewhere else. maybe some places make their own hot dogs (the actual dog)?

    anyway, now i know about portillo’s. and at least i know i can get a chicago style dog here. :)

  • sarah

    *sigh* i know. if i had known, i totally would have used my brunch chicago dog opportunity for one of the others, but i have to admit that as much as i loved my hot dog at portillo’s i can’t exactly see how different it would be if i had gone somewhere else. maybe some places make their own hot dogs (the actual dog)?

    anyway, now i know about portillo’s. and at least i know i can get a chicago style dog here. :)

  • paul

    “Still, that’s how they make them in Chicago, and I wouldn’t have it any other way.”

    For most tourists, yea, a trip to Portillo’s will give you the general idea. But for anyone who cares enough about food to be a food blogger, Portillo’s is the last place I’d recommend.

    Chicago regulars keep hot dog places on their toes. It may be the same dog, (even the same purveyor) the same ingredients and the same bun, but a real Chicago hot dog place that doesn’t depend on tourists wouldn’t last a week if they served even one pasty bun.

  • sarah

    aaaaiiiaaah! paul! thank goodness you keep me in check!

    i can’t believe i just put myself with the tourist turtle herd! *hitting forehead against laptop keyboard*

    what am i thinking? how could i think a pasty bun is okay?! you’re right. and you know what? i don’t think the hot dog even had celery salt on it. LOL!

    but i do have to say that it still tasted pretty good to me after all that walking and being faked out twice the day before :)

    now i really have to go back to chicago asap.

  • Anonymous

    HI MY NAME IS ALICIA AND I WENT TO PORTILLO’S ON CLARK&ONTARIO TODAY WHICH WAS 5/31/06. I HAD THE MOST RUDEST IMPATIENT WAITRESS. I RECALL HER NAME BEING CARMEN PHILLIPS. SHE HAS A BAD ATTITUDE AND RUSHES COSTUMERS TO MAKE ORDERS. SHE GIVES NO TIME AND I JUST CANT BELIVE THAT THIS WAITRESS TURNED ME OFF FROM THIS GOOD ESTABLISHMENT. AFTER I WAS RUSHED FROM MY FOOD ORDER. IT WAS WRONG, BUT SOMETIMES HUNGRY PEOPLE ON A TIME LIMIT DON’T WANT TO BOTHER. AGAIN AND GO THRU THE SAME HASSLE. I JUST THINK FOR SUCH A GOOD ESTABLISHMENT THEY SHOULD TEACH THIER WAITERS & WAITRESSES SOME PEOPLE SKILLS AND IF CARMEN PHILLIPS STARTS DOING SUCH BAD HABITS… THE OTHERS WILL FOLLOW.

  • DaddyDayCare

    As a Chicagoan still living in Chicago, I can tell you that the reason to go to Portillos is for the Italian Beef (hallowed be thy name) NOT the hot dogs (good not great). If you’re looking for a chain that serves an ideal dog, then you’re talking Gold Coast Dogs. However, Chicagoans all have their own local stand, almost always serving a great dog. Byron’s, The Wiener Circle (after midnight for a truly unique experience i.e. NC-17) & the amazingly-named Chubby Wieners to name just three of literally hundreds of spots to get a great Chicago hot dog.

  • DaddyDayCare

    As a Chicagoan still living in Chicago, I can tell you that the reason to go to Portillos is for the Italian Beef (hallowed be thy name) NOT the hot dogs (good not great). If you’re looking for a chain that serves an ideal dog, then you’re talking Gold Coast Dogs. However, Chicagoans all have their own local stand, almost always serving a great dog. Byron’s, The Wiener Circle (after midnight for a truly unique experience i.e. NC-17) & the amazingly-named Chubby Wieners to name just three of literally hundreds of spots to get a great Chicago hot dog.

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