a newspaper man adjusts his pen

Tuesday, June 12, 2012

In Chicago for the hot dog

An authentic Chicago-style hot dog from Portillo's in the so-called Windy City. (Scott Beveridge photo)

By Scott Beveridge

CHICAGO – It's day one in the so-called Windy City and already friends back home are telling me I have to eat deep-dish pizza and Chicago dogs, foods that are as synonymous to this Illinois city as pierogi and kielbasa are to Pittsburgh.

I'm in the mood for one of these hot dogs and head to the hotel bar where I am staying in the Central Loop - the location of many of Chicago's best restaurants - to ask the staff how to find Hot Doug's. A guy I know earlier tells me on Facebook about this restaurant, that it's famous for cooking French fries in duck fat and its Chicago-style dogs.

"It's far away and really hard to get to from here," the hotel bartender says to my dismay.

I next seem to stump her when I ask if there is a place within walking distance to find a good Chicago-style dog.

"Not really. Most of the places are chains," she says before recalling a locally-owned restaurant that sells them across the Chicago River named Portillo's

So I head out for the 1.4-mile trek to this destination at 100 W. Ontario St., passing through this town's fancy theater district, only to notice that a Beatle's tribute is playing at the Oriental Theater and Conan O'Brien is filming his show this week at The Chicago Theater.

Somewhere along my route I wonder about who in "Chi-town" invented such a hot dog that has brought me to this place and what makes it more special than a copycat I can get back home in Pittsburgh at D's Six Pax & Dawgs.

A random waitress at Chicago O'Hare International Airport gives it an attempt after I land here and her ask that very question.

Her response is Chicago's hot dogs are bigger and made "right here" with all beef and no additives. I think that's a pretty impressive sell for any processed food.

Eventually I see Portillo's. It's across the street from a McDonald's with super-sized golden arches next to a Hard Rock cafe filled to its brim with middle-schoolers involved in a lame flash mob.

This Portillo's bills itself as having a Chicago gangster ambiance. Sure enough there is a maroon 1930 Chevy sedan suspended from the ceiling, a car just like those seen in old mob movies. Nearby is a framed 1926 photograph of Ralph "Bottles"Capone (Al's older brother) and his pals below a sign the U.S. government once posted at a local business it closed for violating the National Prohibition Act.

This place is noisy and festive, though, and beer is sold here these days from a bar that is separate from where the food is served. Customers place their food orders while standing at a counter below such decorations as a bra, apron and other garments hanging from a clothesline.

It boasts as having been founded in 1963 by Dick Portillo in a small trailer and since grown to nearly 50 locations with requests for catering from almost as many U.S. states.

I take my food to a table laced in a blue and white checkerboard plastic tablecloth, only to realize while devouring it that I still haven't figured out who had the genius to first dress a hot dog with a pickle wedge, hot peppers, mustard, chopped onions, relish and tomato slices.

Chicago pizza; you are my tomorrow.
 The eclectic interior of Portillo's in Chicago. (Scott Beveridge photo)

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