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.
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.
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.
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