Smells Like Weiner Nirvana
By Bill Gerdes
The Chicago dog—the hot dog specifically—is a much-mythologized piece of Americana; a slightly mysterious meat product that reminds us of the Windy City as much as Al Capone, shady politics and Da Bears. It is normally served on a poppy-seed bun, features an all-beef, kosher-style—if not actual kosher—dog, along with mustard, slices of dill pickle and tomatoes. Locals eschew ketchup on their dogs in much the same way they eschew ethics in their local governance. But the Chicago dogs themselves are an institution and filter throughout the state, enshrining Illinois as something of a wiener nirvana if you like.
Which leads us to Portillo’s Hot Dogs, a ubiquitous franchise of said dog that opened in Illinois in 1963, and now has 31 locations across the state. There’s a random one in Indiana and two in California; one in Buena Park and the other, incongruously enough, off of Day Street in Moreno Valley, kind of the nexus of shopping hell or heaven in the Moreno Valley/Perris area. Portillo’s stands out in the neighborhood as it resembles a large barn as designed by the creators of Disney’s Toontown, while the rest of the area resembles Bed, Bath and Beyond. The décor turns out to be one of the two chief reasons to go to Portillo’s; it’s a veritable museum of artificial, but visually engaging, Chicago kitsch on the walls—oh look, the end of prohibition; oh, Al Capone; oh other Chicago-type stuff. Add in the softly-piped big-band tunes and it’s a nice place to have some fast food.
Chicago-style hot dogs are the second reason to hit Portillo’s. Perhaps there are more traditional spots like Gene and Jude’s, but the dogs here are true to form and quite scrumptious. The regular dog has yellowy-mustard, thinly-diced onions, slices of red, beefsteak tomatoes and a kosher pickle. The jumbo chili cheese dog reminded me of an amped-up, fresher, tastier version of the Der Wienerschnitzel kind, with real chili beans and Vienna beef melding into a beany, beefy, cheesy bit of wonder. Portillo’s does hot dogs perfectly.
The other two options I tried were less inspiring. Despite the sign saying, “Best burgers in town!” I found the regular burger to be inoffensively bland, a thin patty doing nothing to contribute to an uninteresting bun and its condiments. There are better burgers a short drive away, suffice it is to say. I also found the onion rings a bit on the dull side; fried so deeply as to look almost burned and tasting almost exclusively of grease. Portillo’s menu is flipping vast though, and maybe I should have sampled the tamale in a bowl, the Garbage salad, the Big Beef sandwich or one of the scads of options, many framed in iconic, faux-Forties signage in front of the ordering area. All that’s missing here is a mannequin of Rod Blagojevich stealing from the till. And they serve beer, which is always a plus with fast food.
Portillo’s Hot Dogs, 12840 Day St., Moreno Valley, (951) 653-1000; www.portillos.com. AE, ED, MC, V.