Sunday, July 3, 2011

Week of Chicago Dogs: Day Six

Week of Chicago Dogs: As Americans near their various and as sundry Independence Day celebrations coming this July 4, there will be a great number of hot dogs consumed. Most of them will be grilled, Oscar Mayer numbers with a pathetic assortment of condiments of least resistance. A few of them, God help them, will have ketchup on them--ketchup! To help liberate the masses from mediocre hot dogs, this next week will detail the essence of a good Chicago-style hot dog from several Midwest vendors. You're welcome.

Portillo's is a fairly large Midwest establishment. Serving your standard dog shack's fare, they also have pasta and more involved Italian cuisine. With about thirty Illinois locations and a handful in Indiana and California(!) and hot dog history dating back to 1963, Portillo's is a great place to get your Chicago Dog fix or pick up a serving of good lasagna. This visit, we picked up two Chicago Dogs, a small cheese fry, and a small soda for nine dollars.

Lousy picture quality thanks to cell phone camera.

Dog: A Vienna Beef natural casing dog, the Portillo's hot dog is the same high quality I described earlier at Michael's. A bigger dog than average with a perfectly firm skin that gives you the promised snap of a good Chicago Dog, the beef itself is pink and has the slightly smoky aftertaste that lingers on the palate.

Bun: A lightly steamed, fluffy white bread, the Portillo's bun is a choice companion to the Chicago Dog. Although a little light on the poppy seeds, the bread is just moist enough to hold together the entire crew of constituents without becoming an over-conforming mess. It's a delicate balance, but it keeps everything in place while still maintaining enough volume for you to hold onto it as you enjoy your meal.

Toppings: The Portillo's Chicago Dog toppings are largely characterized by the pickle and the sport peppers. The pickle is a long, thick spear at least twice the heft of a pickle you'd find elsewhere, with a nice garlic tang that achieves an excellent symbiosis with the requisite mustard and onions. The peppers are utterly cyclopean. Fat, fertile beasts bursting with fiery seeds, they overpower the normally ameliorative red tomato slices and give the Chicago Dog an infernally spicy first punch followed by a beefy aftertaste with the watery overlay of the pickle and tomatoes.

Side: Portillo's fries are nice, long crinkle-cut slices of spuddy delicacy that have a light salting that is sensitive to the mouth of someone who just had one of their spicy Chicago Dogs. With the flesh inside still particularly tender, there's enough meat to each fry that you actually perceive the distinction between the crisp outside and soft inside without any peels to muddy the issue. The highlight, though, is the cheese sauce. As I've said in the past, most places' cheese fries come with a cup of cheese sauce that clearly is served at least as often with nachos as with fries. This is a quirk to me, but I've long since become inured to it thanks to the culinary travesty of public school cafeterias. When I grabbed my Portillo's cheese fry's cup, a sigh swelled in my chest and I consigned myself to another nacho fry. But the mere smell awakened me to the truth--the cheese sauce, while a sauce, had a distinctly sharp tinge to its odor. A quick dab of the finger into the sauce and a taste confirmed that it was indeed actual cheddar sauce, complete with the smooth impression and a mildly sharp aftertaste. This also earned me an askance glance of the wife, who never ceases to be bemused by me when I dip my digits into cheese sauce. The fries' crispness is perfectly completed by the smooth cheddar of the fries, and earns it the rank of one of my favorite sides of a Chicago Dog vendor.

Venue: All of the Portillo's locations I've been to are large, clean, eclectic establishments. Walking into one evokes the atmosphere of stepping onto a bit of downtown boardwalk or a courtyard of burger joints in the middle of a shopping district in Chicago. Corrugated sheeting on the ceiling with gaps filled by neon stars gives you a wistful sense of fancy, and the brick walls with copious photos everywhere, and the occasional classic car embedded in the wall gives a sense of nostalgia for things I've never actually experienced. Franchises are a funny thing, but the decor of Portillo's is always fun and classy and--if it weren't all too big and too cleanly executed--I could almost forget that this is part of a chain and think it's just another eccentric hot dog place. High marks, indeed.

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