- Hot dogs are serious business in Chicago.
- Portillo’s is the most famous chain serving Chicago-style hot dogs.
- I ate dinner at Portillo’s on a recent trip to Chicago and was won over by the cheap, classic, and delicious food even though the decor was overwhelming at first.
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Chicago takes hot dogs seriously.
A hot dog is no ketchup-and-mustard affair in the Windy City. A Chicago-style dog gets you all the stinky, spicy, pungent, pickled toppings you could think of – but no ketchup.
On a recent trip to Chicago, I knew I had to stop by the city’s most famous hot dog chain, Portillo’s, which has restaurants all over the US but is mostly based in the Midwest.
It was a dark and chilly night, but nothing keeps this writer from her wienerwurst. Here’s how my dog day dinner went down.
Wrapped in a warm, fluffy scarf, I made my way through the cold to the Portillo’s location in Chicago’s River North neighbourhood.
It’s a flagship location, and it was much bigger and more ostentatious than I was expecting from a hot dog stand.
Above the entrance was a large mural depicting idyllic Midwestern life.
Upon entering, I wasn’t sure I was in the right place. I’d been expecting a hot dog shop, not a cavernous food court.
Portillo’s looked like the love child of a Costco food court and a historical wax museum.
The restaurant was a vast, two-story affair with Chicago memorabilia all over the place, from old photographs to vintage cars.
I was creeped out by the uncanny figures of corn-haired children peering at me from a classic car.
And as a first-timer, I had a hard time figuring out how or where to order food.
I was overwhelmed by the many neon signs and tiled counters. Which one was the right one?
Eventually, I made my way to the counter under the sign that said “Order.” I figured that was probably a good start.
In addition to hot dogs, Portillo’s has burgers, sandwiches, salads, pasta, and more.
But I was there for one thing and one thing only: a beef brat.
I skipped the bar serving cocktails and wines. Drinking a cocktail with a hot dog just didn’t feel right.
My order came out in a flash: a beef hot dog ($US3.29), a slice of chocolate cake ($US3.19), small fries ($US2.29), and a small strawberry shake ($US3.59).
Portillo’s hot dog is topped with mustard, relish, celery salt, diced onions, tomato slices, a kosher pickle spear, and sport peppers, all in a steamed poppy seed bun.
Despite having lived in Chicago for four years, I’d never had a Chicago-style hot dog before. But one bite of this one and I was a convert.
The sausage was juicy and full of flavour, while each topping contributed a powerful addition to either the flavour or texture.
I ate the pickle spear separately, which may upset some purists, but I submit that the only wrong way to eat a pickle is not to eat a pickle.
Next, I dove in for a fingerful of fries. Crinkle-cut fries are always a risky move, but Portillo’s aren’t bad.
They’re reasonably crispy and salty, and they essentially fulfil their function as fries.
At their best, they’re fine. Once they’re cold, they’re pretty terrible.
Luckily, I had a delicious cold thing to pull me through.
The strawberry milkshake was a creamy classic with strawberry bits blended into the fold.
It was thick and sweet and would make any milkshake lover very happy.
Next, I moved onto the enormous slab of chocolate cake.
It was as soft, moist, and densely frosted as any cake could be. And, oh so sweet.
It almost tasted like it had been dunked in simple syrup.
The cake was so rich and sugary I couldn’t take more than a few bites before I started to feel sick.
After overloading my sweet tooth, I returned to the last few bites of my dog.
It wasn’t always easy to get a bit of each topping in every bite. The bites that contained peppers were potently hot, while those that didn’t were decidedly not.
But for just over three bucks, this wurst was more than worth it.
Afterward, I was more than satisfied. I’d gotten a cheap, classic, filling, and delicious meal for about $US13.
Portillo’s is a definite go for anyone planning to visit Chicago. Whether you find the tableaus of idyllic Midwestern life charming or kitschy, the earnest, no-frills food is sure to win you over.
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