Serious Eats: Chicago
The Six Best Dishes at Portillo's in Chicago
Portillo's is a chain, but it's a great one. I've been wanting to say that for while, because its name comes up often on the site when discussing street food in Chicago, and while that could be because it has numerous locations—including an especially prominent one in River North—the mentions are mostly due to the surprisingly consistent and occasionally excellent food. More on the latter in just a second.
I should clarify that Portillo's is a local chain (though there are a few outlets in other states), and that it has a hot dog history as colorful and authentic as Gene and Jude's. Basically, it goes like this: In 1963 Dick Portillo converted a six by twelve foot trailer into the Dog House in Villa Park. Fast forward fifty years, and after a name change, lots of hard work, and some savvy business sense, Portillo's is now the "largest privately owned restaurant company in the Midwest." (If you want the full history, click here.)
That's not a bad story, but just about every chain has one just like it. Well, except for the independent part, which matters much more than you'd think. Though a large operation, Portillo's has loads of quirks, most of which are designed to improve customer service. The River North location may be inundated with an endless deluge of locals and tourists, yet it's almost always remarkably clean. Lines can get epically long, but a fleet of workers help speed up the process by taking orders before customers get to the cash register.
That same attention to detail is prevalent in the kitchen, and no fast food operation of its size in the city is as consistent at as many things. Of course, that sounds like I'm damning it with faint praise. Consistent is all well and good, but what about the delicious? Certainly, it's not as wildly wonderful as Hot Doug's. No, but there are some exceptional finds on the menu, which I found out after multiple visits.
Check out the six best dishes at Portillo's, and then let me know what I missed. Is there some dish that I've overlooked? I'd love to hear about it!