Portillo's Chicago is a local legend that still deserves an in-depth review. When it started in 1963, owner Dick Portillo likely had little idea of what he was starting. As just a lone hot dog man looking to make some great dogs, Portillo's has exploded to and has a reputation for great, quick Italian food and one of the best hot dogs in Chicago. Visiting the place that started it all is a fun experience not just for visitors to the area but also lifelong Chicago residents.
Photo: Chicago Tribune
I stopped in at the River North location recently, because that happened to be the Portillo’s near me (they have locations all over Chicagoland). If you go on a weekend, expect the place to be busy. Tourists and local Chicagoans alike love the place, so when I went last Saturday I made sure I was in no rush to get my food. People flock to this restaurant during most hours of the day, and I had a hard time finding a good place to park, which is just the nature of doing anything downtown. On the bright side a quick check of Portillo’s hours will show that restaurant is open from 10AM-11PM, so you can go just about anytime.
When I poked my head in the door, I was worried I wasn't going to find a seat. Thankfully, there was a place for me, and I could get started on my Portillo's adventure.
You might think Portillo’s is just a hot dog place if you’ve never been, but locals know Portillo’s is much more than that. As I looked over the menu, I found many options that intrigued my mind and my stomach (per usual).
Obviously, there was the most basic choice of a plain dog with just ketchup and mustard. That might be good for the kids, but I wanted something more substantial. In addition to great hot dogs, Portillo’s is known for having some of the best italian beef in Chicago.
For that reason, I went with the combo beef and char-grilled sausage meal that looked particularly delicious. This meal is a combination of Italian beef and sausage pulled together and is combined on a French roll to create a very delicious taste. You can add whatever fixings you want, making this an excellent choice for first-timers.
Another combination that caught my eye was the charbroiled chicken sandwich. This option is a healthier choice for those who don't want to eat hot dogs or thick burgers. It comes with lettuce, tomato, mayo, and even sweet peppers. I'm sure it is delicious, but I came to Portillo's to get a dog, darn it, and I was going to get one.
Before moving on, I feel I should mention the menu also included vegetable sandwiches, panini choices, gourmet salads, spaghetti, angel hair pasta, ravioli, baked mostaccioli, and much more. This diversity makes Portillo's an excellent choice for those who are with friends or family members who don't want hot dogs. There are also a variety of side orders, which I'll discuss in more depth below.
To get into the spirit of things, I order two jumbo dogs with mustard, relish, celery salt, onions, tomatoes, pickles, and peppers. Price is always something to consider at a restaurant, and I feel this is a good point to drop the bomb about Portillo's menu prices: they are incredible. My two jumbo hot dogs cost just $3.35 each. These are real local “hot dog stand” costs, and each dog is more than worth it.
To compliment my order, I got a Coke ($2.35 large, all you can drink) and a strawberry smoothie ($3.29), with a side of garlic bread ($1.99) to munch on while I waited. Adding all that up, I paid $14.33 (before tax and tip) for two hot dogs, a beefy order of garlic bread, and two hefty drinks.
Folks, that right there is one of the major secrets of Portillo's success. You simply can't get better prices for downtown food. The amount of food you get for the price is hard to imagine unless you've ordered from here before. Let's just say that each hot dog is at least a half-pound of food and leave it at that.
While I waited for my dogs to show up, I soaked in the atmosphere of Portillo's. Like many downtown staples, it featured a variety of decorations that make it stand out. For example, there were many photos from when the place originally opened up. These were fun to look at, as was the gallery of famous people who have visited the restaurant.
Like most restaurants, there's pop music playing in the background as you eat. That doesn't bother me so much, but I was hoping for something a bit more “Italian” than I got. The customer service was pretty active, too. Most people who worked there seemed to enjoy their job or at least emulated enjoyment quite well.
I would warn the picky eater, though, that Portillo's is not the place to come if you like to eat alone or without a lot of people around. So anticipate sitting closer than you'd like to stranger. That's perhaps the biggest downside of Portillo's, though the more sociable person will love spending time meeting new people.
Anyone searching for a “Portillo's near me,” knows how well the dogs hold up, but for the less experienced consumer let me fill you in. The atmosphere is a fun consideration, of course, but the quality of the food is all that matters. Do Portillo's hot dogs live up to the legendary status that has been placed on them?
First of all, let's talk about the presentation. When my dogs were brought out to me, I was staggered by their size. The jumbo dogs are truly huge, and they were piled on with toppings.
I didn't even need ketchup (usually a hot dog staple with me) to flavor these dogs, as they were already so filled with goodness.
Picking up the first dog, I'll admit, I had a hard time imagining how I was going to take a bit of something so big.
However, I managed, and here's what I thought of each ingredient, in detail. The buns were warm, soft, and easy to chew. They had none of the rock hard texture you find at so many convenient lower price restaurants. Apparently, the buns are kept warm throughout the day to provide maximum softness.
The meat was thick, greasy, and juicy. It was cooked to a relatively consistent temperature, so there were no cold spots. The taste was perfect for what you'd expect from a high-quality dog. There was none of that stringy or gross texture you get from lower priced dogs. These were the real deal.
The mustard and relish offered a sweet flavor enhancement texture, without overpowering the meat taste. At least too much: I do have to say that the toppings here were a little thick for my liking, but not even close to the point that I couldn't enjoy the dog. Frankly, I'd only have removed maybe only a little bit to get my perfect level. But hey, that's just me!
As for the vegetables, they were delicious. Each felt as if they had just been picked, cleaned, chopped, and served just that morning. Like the mustard and the relish, they were layered on pretty thickly. However, I felt like they didn't quite overpower the taste of the meat quite like the relish.
I do feel, though, that I erred in buying two dogs instead of one. After finishing the first, I was quite stuffed. Attacking the second one proved to be too difficult of a task for me to finish on my own.
In fact, I only got halfway through that one before I had to get a to-go box. Thankfully, the restrooms were clean and well maintained, as I needed to wash my face and hands of toppings and grease. A great sign of a good hot dog!
Before finishing up, I should also talk about the garlic bread and drinks that I ordered. Obviously, a Coke is a Coke and is essential for a good hot dog eating experience. However, the smoothie should be reviewed quickly to give you an idea of what to expect.
It was pretty good, mixed to a fairly thick texture, and more than worth the price. I'd compare it favorably to a smoothie found at a typical ice cream shop. While not the best I've ever tasted, it was better than average.
The garlic bread was also quite good, though not quite as good as the dogs. For one thing, it's a pretty simple order and the portions relatively small. That's understandable, given the nature of Portillo's. It's typically a place people stop by alone or for a quick bite. A large order of garlic bread for one person is probably excessive, particularly for the price.
One thing I enjoyed about their garlic bread was that they didn't burn it the way you see in other restaurants. It was crisp without having that rock-hard texture you often get when places aren't careful. It was firm but easy to chew, and it had a rich flavor that went particularly well with my jumbo dogs.
I have to say that Portillo's more than lived up to what I expected from it. The hot dogs were tasty, the prices were low, the atmosphere was fun, and everyone was respectful. There's just a feeling of fun and joy running through the place, something that is hard to put down into words without experiencing it yourself.
My personal suggestion is to go there during a slow period, such as around two in the afternoon, with the family and try out the kid's meals. Portillo’s menu prices are right, and your children will love getting to eat hot dogs and hamburgers for supper. Consider this a local legend that is well worth your time. Even if you can’t make to the actual location, try out Portillo’s delivery. You’ll be just as pleased.
Written By: Maxine Kasznia
Author bio: Maxine is a Chicago Native and UCLA grad. She has a passion for sustainable eating and loves to find the best environmentally friendly spots in every city she visits. After living in both Chicago and LA, she has an appreciation for local cuisines and continues to look for ways to expand her palate.