I just got back from a long weekend trip to Chicago, where I attended a design conference. While I was there, I kept thinking about my failed attempt last year to eat a classic Chicago dog, so I knew my mission was to find and eat one.
I was even determined to spend the moolah to hire a taxi to arrive at some of the popular gourmet hot dog shacks in the outskirts of town, but when I asked the hotel concierge which place would be easier to get to, her response was "do you want to eat where the tourists go or where the locals go?"
I felt like such a tourist, wanting to go to the Food Network featured spots and stand in line for more than an hour for a hot dog. Finally, my lazy ass convinced me to go to a longtime spot that wasn't too far from my hotel -- Portillo's.
Portillo is actually in a part of Northside Chicago that does seem touristy with the largest McDonald's across the street along with eateries like Hard Rock Cafe and Rainforest Cafe. When I entered the festive-looking Portillo's, it was like I entered a ride in Disneyland with the dim lights, bright neon signs and city dwellers' facade.
Portillo's sells a lot more than just hot dogs, but I was on a mission. I stood at the stand for sausages and asked someone who worked there what was the Chicago dog. "You're out of town, huh?" she said, noting that there's nothing called a Chicago dog, like how you don't get Chinese food in China.
Basically, anything made with vienna beef is a Chicago dog, but it's also the condiments that go on top. I ordered the Portillo's beef hot dog ($2.45), which was topped with creamy mustard, relish, chopped onions, red tomatoes, kosher dill pickle spear and what's called "sports peppers."
I waited to pick up my order and then sat down to dig in. Even though the Chicago dog doesn't have ketchup, I didn't miss it because of the tomatoes. I didn't think the vienna dog was any different that hot dogs I might get at the baseball park, but it's really all the condiments lather on topped that was genius.
I couldn't eat the dog with the large pickle spear, so I just took that off and ate it as I ate the dog. The bun was a bit mushy and not that special, and the tomato slices were a bit messy to eat. When it came to the "sports peppers," they were tiny hot peppers that were super spicy. I ended up only eating one of them.
After I accomplished my goal of eating a Chicago dog on this trip, I rewarded myself with a small bowl of frozen custard, sold at a nearby counter. I've never had frozen custard, and thought they'd all be yellow like custard, but it actually comes in different flavors. At Portillo's, they sell chocolate and vanilla and have an assortment of specialty sundaes, but I just got a small vanilla with Oreo cookie crumbles.
Frozen custard was really creamy and thick, and I really enjoyed it. The Oreo cookies were a bit stale, but I didn't care. It was a nice way to wash down my dog.
And just to show you that I really went all out with the Chicago traditions on this trip, my co-workers and I went to Lou Malnati's for its deep dish pizza the night before. The deep dish pizza was loaded with cheese and fresh tomatoes that weren't tart, sprinkled with house-made sausages. What was amazing was the crust, some kind of twice-baked crust that held up nicely but was easy to bite into. Most of my co-workers could only eat one slice and save another slice for breakfast the next day.
Don't worry, I ate at a lot more Chicago spots and will be posting about them later this week. But for now, I can say that I'm no longer a Chicago dog virgin.
Portillo's, 100 W. Ontario St., Chicago (and various locations). PH: 312.587.8910. www.portillos.com
Lou Malnati's, 439 N. Wells St., Chicago (and various locations). PH: 312.828.9800, www.loumalnatis.com
Tuesday, June 28, 2011