Portillo’s, Chicago.

October 2013

Hot dogs, hot dogs! chant all the guidebooks, even Michelin, waxing enthusiastic about the hog butcher to the nations freightyards, or whatever the quote is. Don’t miss them. One of the best things about Chicago. That and the deep-dish pizza. It would be like missing the ball game. But where should you go?

Well, there isn’t a starred restaurant serving hot dogs, and although Michelin mentions a few places in its discursive introduction to certain neighborhoods, it was Lonely Planet that directed us to Portillo’s, fairly centrally located, easily accessible using the brilliantly-organized local transit system.

Arriving, you are pretty sure you’ve come to the wrong place. It looks like a low-end food court. A big room with a mezzanine (closed except for washrooms), there are about a dozen tables with checkered cloths in the center, with a faux picket fence directing customers to ten or so counters where you order food and drinks. Servers are a McDonald’s-level mix of courteous black people. Each counter has a blackboard behind it with a big variety of dishes or drinks (ribs, pizza, hot dogs, hamburgers, beer), and a neon sign above it, confirming the impression that the various outlets are in competition.

Undaunted, we ordered our hot dogs along with icy Budweiser. I had a “Polish” wiener (50-50 beef and pork) with a variety of trimmings which were available individually: pickle, peppers, mayonnaise, plus the mandatory French’s-style mustard. There were two additional condiments available: ketchup and ketchup.

Unexpectedly the hot dog was absolutely delicious. The wiener slightly crisp on the outside and beautifully tender and succulent all the way through with just a hint of nutmeg, the bun almost vanishingly soft, condiments very flavorful and crunchy. Like most dressed-up hot dogs it was a little hard to eat, but as soon as I was finished I wanted another one. I opted for ribs instead, and they were tender and delicious although covered with predictable tomato-vinegar reduction. The dog was $5.35 handed to you in a bag with fries and a paper napkin.

Don’t knock it. Just because something isn’t considered classy and comes from a place that reminds you of the worst kind of daytime TV doesn’t necessarily mean it won’t satisfy. And as we know not-satisfying is the evidence-based definition of an empty calorie. I would go back next time I’m in town and in the mood.

Ambience 3.2, food 8.0, service absent, overall value 9.1

About John Sloan

John Sloan is a senior academic physician in the Department of Family Practice at the University of British Columbia, and has spent most of his 30 years' practice caring for the frail elderly in Vancouver. He is the author of "A Bitter Pill: How the Medical System is Failing the Elderly", published in 2009 by Greystone Books. His innovative primary care practice for the frail elderly has been adopted by Vancouver Coastal Health and is expanding. Dr. Sloan lectures throughout North America on care of the elderly.
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