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April 18, 2006

The Beef-Off - Chapter IV - Portillo's

Dominic Armato
In some ways, I'm torn about including a chain in the 2006 Beef-Off. It flies in the face of the grungy Chicago beef stand tradition as well as, frequently, culinary excellence. But Portillo's is a chain that is not only native to Chicago, but is also frequently recommended by friends. Plus, I have a dozen months to fill, so I figured it deserves a shot. Until today, I don't think I'd set foot in a Portillo's since I was seven or eight. But I figured if I was going to put Portillo's on the list, I'd have to set all prejudices aside and judge the beef for the beef.

Portillo's is a Chicago chain, born in 1963, that specializes in typical meaty lunch fare... beef sandwiches, hamburgers and the ubiquitous Chicago-style hot dog. For convenience's sake, I chose the monstrous location on Ontario, situated a short drive from my office. Everything leading up to the beef itself did not inspire confidence. The Ontario Portillo's is smack dab in the middle of theme restaurant central, flanked by the likes of the Hard Rock Cafe, Ed Debevic's, Rainforest Cafe and McDonald's ode to retro-modern architecture. Though it isn't quite so flashy from the outside, this Portillo's is full-on Disneyfied on the inside. It's a tableau of storybook old-timey Chicago, complete with fire escapes, ancient cars with Bonnie and Clyde runnerboards and numerous mannequins in Norman Rockwell poses. The two counters (Portillo's shares the space with another Dick Portillo brainchild, Barnelli's Pasta Bowl... eeugh) are staffed by a swarming army of employees. I counted at least 25 in plain sight, not counting the FIVE employees standing outside to help expedite the drive-thru. The kitchen is a gleaming model of cleanliness and efficiency, churning out huge numbers of meals. It is, quite simply, the absolute antithesis of the typical Chicago hot dog / Italian beef stand. I ordered my standard... beef, sweet hot and dipped, with fries... and this is when the woman taking my order threw me a bit of a curveball. She asked if I wanted cheese. I inquired, in disbelief, if she meant on the beef, which she confirmed. This nearly disqualified Portillo's on the spot. While there are many sandwiches with a fine beef and cheese tradition, under absolutely NO circumstances do dairy products belong on an Italian beef. I'm sure my look said it before my lips did, but I politely declined. I took my number, and a couple of minutes later I sat down with my first Italian beef from a chain restaurant.

Dominic Armato
You know what? It was pretty darn good.

Though the Beef-Off doesn't focus on the fries, I'm of the opinion that they're an integral part of an Italian beef meal. So in the case of Portillo's, we'll give them as much attention as they deserve. They were crinkle cut off the factory line, and assuredly frozen at some point... not bad, but not particulary good and completely uninteresting. Moving on. As for the beef itself, I have to say, I was pleasantly surprised. Perhaps it was a result of low expectations, but I truly believe that this is a worthy beef sandwich. If I had to condense my opinion (which I don't, since it's my blog), I'd describe it as bold but balanced. There was none of the subtlety of the Chickie's sandwich going on here. It had the sweet, it had the spicy, the herbs were present and, naturally, the juicy beef was as well. All of the components were strong, but they were balanced enough that none dominated the others. The beef was both abundant and wonderfully moist. The giardiniera was vanilla but good; spicy and tart with chunks of hot pepper, finely diced celery and cauliflower, and long zig-zag strips of carrot. And though it's generally a component that can only cost an establishment points, I was unusually impressed by the bread. It was an extremely fresh roll that was not only tasty but also seemed to defy the laws of physics. My sandwich had clearly been dipped, as requested. The inner bun was wet and mushy, the middle was moist yet firm, and the outer crust was lightly coated with oily juice. But the crust, despite the soaking, somehow managed to maintain a little bit of crispiness that made for a great overall texture. And in a little touch that I particularly liked, I could be mistaken, but I thought I got a nice olive oil flavor that I really appreciated.

To read the previous paragraph, this must sound like an incredible beef. To be clear, I think it's rather good, but when all is said and done, it won't be winning my highest praise. While I'm unable to fault its technical execution, it still lacks the intangibles that separate the great beef sandwiches from the pack. For one, the beef flavor, while abundant, wasn't as full and rich as some others I've had. What's more, while the beef coexisted happily with the other elements, it wasn't the star. And in a way that I couldn't quite put my finger on, it lacked the subtlety and depth of some other beef sandwiches. While tasty, it was very straightforward with no surprises (other than the bread) and less character than I like in a beef sandwich. Lastly, the first bite / last bite factor was the opposite of what I'd like to see. A great beef gets a little better with every bite, as the oils and juices build in your mouth and the flavor unfolds. The Portillo's beef did just the opposite. For reasons I don't understand, the first bite was the best. It wasn't a big drop-off, but I felt there was a detectable decay that had me slightly less enthused upon finishing the sandwich.

So would I recommend it? Absolutely! In fact, I'd go so far as to say that I think it's a worthy baseline that would be a great intro for someone who was trying an Italian beef for the first time. Portillo's serves a textbook Italian beef, crisply executed. It's more Souza than Mozart, but I like it anyway. As for where it fits into the rankings thus far, it definitely isn't on the level of Chickie's, but while it may break my father's heart, I have to put it slightly above Roma's. I strongly suspect that Roma's has higher potential, but potential only scores points when realized. Thus, after four rounds, the standings are as follows:

1) Chickie's
2) Portillo's
3) Roma's
4) Al's

Addendum: The final Beef-Off results and wrapup can be found in The Year In Beef.


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