1 August 2010

Portillo's Hot Dogs, Chicago - Restaurant Review



A Chicago-style hot dog is one of the great American culinary institutions. There are some variations but one of these beauties generally involves an all-beef wiener served in a steamed poppy seed bun with a cornucopia of toppings that typically include onion, tomato, kosher pickle, sweet pickle relish (sometimes called piccalilli), sport peppers, and of course mustard (never, ever tomato ketchup - it is considered blasphemous by most Chicagoans). The whole ensemble is now, rather appropriately, said to have been 'dragged through the garden'.

For my first taste of Chicago's finest I headed off to Portillo's Hot Dogs which has become a Chicago legend. In 1963 Dick Portillo opened a lone hot dog stand on North Avenue in Villa Park and gave it the wonderful name of "The Dog House". Over the years the business grew and Portillo's now boasts branches across Chicagoland and even some in Southern California.
Each store has a different theme and reflects a particular period of 20th century American History. The one I went to on West Ontario Street was based on the 30's-40's gangster era. The interior really is one of those you-need-to-see-it-to-believe-it-only-in-America-so-awful-it's-good types. In other words, it was perfect for this sort of food. There is no table service here, Portillo's operates like a fast-food chain. I was there on a Saturday lunchtime and was greeted with a queue that seemed to be about 30 yards long. Luckily, I only waited around 5-10 minutes as the restaurant is phenomenally efficient at churning out food. The restaurant does serve dishes other than hot dogs and there is a separate queue for Portillo's Italian fayre, but given that this was deserted it says all you need to know about why people come here.
I ordered a Jumbo Hot dog with all available toppings and a side of onion rings, to be washed down with a vanilla malt shake. The hot dog arrived with all the aforementioned accoutrements. It wasn't pretty but it was a thing of beauty in my book. The first bite into the hot dog was heavenly. Not to be too poncey about this but the whole combination provided a wonderful contrast of textures, flavours and temperatures. The skin of the hot dog yielded to the teeth with a pleasing 'snap' to reveal dense, salty meat that was juicy without being too greasy with a mild smokey taste. The warm, poppy seed bun was made from heavily refined white flour that is all too comforting when combined with the fat of the hot dog. The tomatoes provided moisture, the kosher pickles a good acidic crunch, and the mustard, onions and relish gave the requisite 'oomph', with the small, hot sport peppers giving an occasional fiery bite. It was magnificent; messy, but magnificent. A real guilty pleasure. The onion rings were good too with a light, crispy coating and were not overly greasy.
If you're ever in Chicago then a trip to Portillo's really is a must. It's a perfect place to sample one of Chicago's legendary dishes.

Food:        7 / 10
Service:     6 / 10
Ambiance: 7 / 10

Portillo's Hot Dogs
100 W. Ontario
Chicago IL 60654
Tel: +1 312-587-8910

Portillo's Hot Dogs (Chicago) on Urbanspoon

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