Sunday, June 17, 2018
Dining

Review: At Portillo's, dogs are Chicago and the curse is lifted

BRANDON

On Thursday, both Tampa Bay Portillo's locations were thronged with Zobrist jerseys and other Cubs-obilia with a side order of non sequitur Blackhawks garb. The 71-year Curse of the Billy Goat had been broken, the Chicago Cubs had won the World Series, and restaurant general manager Jeremy Sasso was so chuffed he was theoretically amenable to even hircine guests ("a service goat would be okay").

Chicagoland transplants knew where to go for the celebratory foods of the motherland: They were ordering "evers" (that's a Chicago dog all the way), "beef with" (Italian beef with sweet marinated green peppers) and "beef minus" (no peppers), and "Maxwell Street Polishes" (Polish sausage topped with grilled onions and yellow mustard).

Some requested Italian beef sandwiches "dry" (just a bit of gravy) or "dipped" (the whole dang sandwich gets lowered into the beef gravy). And some chose a hot dog or jumbo "no pep" (that's without the little sport peppers).

Portillo's is its own world with its own lingo. But it is not alone. All over Chicago are neighborhood spots selling Vienna dogs, Italian beef and those peculiar skinny Chicago tamales. Only some of them, like Portillo's, got noticed, got famous and proliferated. The first Portillo's, then called The Dog House, opened in 1963 on North Avenue in Villa Park. It was a 6-foot-by-12-foot trailer with no bathroom or running water; owner Dick Portillo threaded 250 feet of garden hose from a nearby building into the trailer.

By 1994, Dick Portillo was named entrepreneur of the year by Inc. Magazine; by 2000 the restaurant group launched a catering arm and starting shipping to all 50 states.

It turns out, they shipped a lot of beef and dogs to Florida. California came first, then Arizona, and then Portillo's set its sights on the Sunshine State: They announced their intention with a full-page ad in the Tampa Bay Times for the last game of the Stanley Cup in 2015 (they had a second ad queued up in case the Blackhawks lost). "Cheer up Tampa, there's good news from Chicago today. … Let's be frank: No matter whose jersey you're wearing, everyone will be welcome. We hope you don't have a beef against us or our home team."

They opened in April 2016 in Brandon with lines around the block. In September they opened a second location at 2102 E Fowler Ave. in Tampa.

This place is a hoot. It's huge and sprawling with a loosely retro Prohibition-era vibe. There are stations: Salads and ribs over here (the ribs a new addition); where you order dogs and beef over there; a third little counter for a tiny lineup of beers (served in heavy glass goblets that look like something you'd win in the Triwizard Tournament). You place your order, which a young counter person writes in cryptic notes on the back of a to-go bag — meanwhile, everyone is yelling "OLO," which means they've received an online order — then you stand around and wait for your number to be called.

There are things I can't explain. A raft of breaded chicken sandwiches on flaky croissants. How is this a Chicago thing? But the Italian beef and cheddar version ($6.19) is seriously good, hot and melty, its beef pliable and moist. And then there's the chocolate cake shake ($3.99/$4.79). Their chocolate shakes are good, their chocolate cake is good ($3.09, rich and old-timey, like a preschool birthday cake as remembered through a nostalgic scrim), but together it seems like an unfortunate kitchen accident.

Which could happen. This place has a vast staff, assembly-line style, with Rube Goldberg machines spitting out burgers and toasted buns.

But you're here for the beef and the dogs. I had a spirit guide on my first visit: Dr. BBQ, a.k.a. Chicago native Ray Lampe, accompanied me. Lampe, a Food Network celebrity working on opening a restaurant in St. Petersburg, brought his own fancy knife for dividing sandwiches and explicating with vigor.

The Italian beef is quite good ($5.89-$8.25) but the "dipped" style flummoxed me. It had me humming Donna Summer ("someone left my beef out in the rain"). No matter, the Chicago dog, snappy with casing and served on a cushiony poppy seed-flecked bun with all the fixings — celery salt, chopped onion, tomato, pickle spear, sport peppers, mustard, crazy-green relish — requires full attention, many napkins and a keen appreciation of the merits of dental floss (yeesh, those poppy seeds). It's a classic, great dog.

Sasso says that 95 percent of the building blocks at Portillo's are imported from Chicago. He says the company is scouting several other locations in Florida to accommodate all the Chicago transplants and snowbirds. So while some Tampa Bay residents may still be grousing about Joe Maddon's defection to the Cubs, no one can say the Windy City didn't give us anything in return.

Contact Laura Reiley at [email protected] or (727) 892-2293. Follow @lreiley on Twitter. She dines anonymously and unannounced; the Times pays all expenses.

     
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