The Portillo's tapes
Why is Madison going bonkers for the Illinois fast-food chain?
The FIBs staged a major fast-casual incursion into Madison this March, opening a massive Portillo’s location near East Towne Mall. Portillo's is an Illinois-based chain that specializes in hot Italian beef sandwiches, hot dogs, and other various artery-clogging eats. The East Towne location is the third in Wisconsin, with the other two falling in the suburbs of Milwaukee. Coming in at a whopping 9,000 square feet, this new location towers over an unsuspecting Culver's location merely two blocks away—and it's usually slammed on weekends, all the tables full and cars backed up a dozen deep in the drive-through lane. I'm a longtime fan of the regional chain and Tone Madison editor Scott Gordon is more of a tepid explorer, so I dragged him out to East Towne a couple Saturdays ago to try and understand what the fuss is all about.
When Portillo's announced its Madison location, I told Scott that I would trade all Culver's in Wisconsin for one Portillo's. [John is now in witness protection. —ed] I was set on what I saw as exciting about the menu: cheap, tasty hot dogs, creamy, chocolatey cake shakes, and greasy, seasoned beef covered in gravy and hot peppers. Oh, and if you're dining in, you can also get a massive chalice of Spotted Cow?
You might ask, reasonably, why we should even care care about a glossy new chain coming to town. For me, it’s them damn dogs. Portillo’s has good hot dogs and currently Madison lacks for those. The city has had a tumultuous relationship with places that actually tried to do justice to the hot dog, with establishments like Wiener Shop and O.S.S. making valiant but ultimately doomed runs at it. In that context, there's something to be said for a competent Chicago dog at a low price.
We recorded our visit and present a transcript here, annotated and lightly edited for coherence and length. While we ultimately came away with very different conclusions, we both advise you to avoid those hideous tamales.
John: Every time I drive past there, there's at least 100 cars in the driveway [possible hyperbole —ed.] and what I can only assume is a madhouse inside. I hope you brought kneepads and extra cushion to fight off the hordes of people.
Scott: Full disclosure: The last time I went to a Portillo's was years ago, and I think it was the big touristy one in Streeterville. And I'm wondering if you can explain why people are lining up for this place, because I honestly don't get it.
John: I think because they're famous for their hot dogs and their Italian beef. There's not really another fast-food chain that does something like that in a traditional Chicago kind of way. There's places that I think try and do that, but honestly, the only thing that comes to mind is like an Arby's, whose whole thing is just that they have a lot of meat.
Scott: I did have an Italian beef recently at Working Draft! It was good.
John: Portillo's to me isn't a Chicago restaurant. It's a Chicago suburbs restaurant, and the people who freak out about it are people who lived in the surrounding Chicago white suburbs.
Scott: It's definitely a restaurant chain that has the dubious term "Chicagoland" in its vocabulary.
John: Plus, they have cake shakes, which are a mythical creation. It's apples-to-oranges for sure, but in my heart of hearts I think Portillo's is better than Culver's. I think their signature item, hot beef, is better than a Butterburger, because Butterburgers are gross.
Scott: Why are they gross?! Why are they any more gross than any other fast-food sandwich?
John: Every time I've gotten one, it's, like, unseasoned grease, essentially, on a bun. Hot beef is also meat and grease, but at least it's seasoned, and also has giardiniera and other fun stuff.
Scott: As we're pulling up here, the parking lot is pretty full and the drive-through lane is pretty bugnuts. They have traffic cones set out around the parking lot and drive-through line, which is not a vote of confidence in the clientele.
John: The thing that I will always think about these regional fast-food places: I'm sure the original Culver's and Portillo's weren't what they are today. They were just a little hot-dog shack or a burger shack, but now they've escalated into these suburban food monsters. They pop up in mall parking lots and next to empty J.C. Penney stores, and people cling on to them as some sort of regional identity—"Culver's, I'm from Wisconsin, yeah!"
Scott: So now we're inside! It looks like the 1950s threw up, and there are flatscreens just broadcasting Portillo's content. The servers all have these caps?
John: Yeah, they're like busker caps.
Scott: They're newsies.
John: Hot beef, read all about it!
Scott: Some places call them "associates." We call them "newsies."
John: The line looks like a cattle chute.
Scott: So beyond the marquee items, are there any sleepers on the menu here that people should keep an eye out for?
John: Their cheese fries are really good.
Scott: The screens here are advertising tuna salad as a "no-meat" option, which seems wrong. Also, they have tamales? We need to get one and find out what that's about.
John: I didn't realize driving past this place how big and wide it was. It's a huge place. Also, the majority of the order announcements [a staff member is announcing orders on a microphone as they come out] are rhyming: "Number 82, this one's for you, number 106, come get your fix." Is there like a limerick training course for the staff? I'm remembering this now from other Portillo's locations I've been to. That's a corporate thing, the rhyming of the orders.
Scott: It's slammed in here, but I will say the staff is incredibly efficient and does a great job of moving people through. Also we're order 112 and did not get a rhyme. Between us, we've got a Chicago dog, an Italian beef, cheese fries, a tamale, and chocolate cake shakes. When you take a sip of the shake, there are these soft cake-y bits mixed in? And maybe frosting?
John: They just take the cake and, I guess, immersion-blend it.
Scott: I'm opening up the beef sandwich. There's no giardiniera or gravy on it. So without that it's just these thin, pitiful rags of beef. And bread. [A server brought giardiniera later and it was an improvement, in that the sandwich became an otherwise rather flavorless conveyance for the spicy pickled veggies.]
John: I'm always super interested when I go to a place like this and there's all this decor on the walls. Over here we have I Married A Monster From Outer Space, Return Of The Fly, and all the retro '60s sci-fi movies, but then there's like Coca Cola memorabilia, and to me, yeah, those things are from the same era, but they're not the same thing.
Scott: They're not cultural signifiers in the same way.
John: It'd be like a Coca Cola poster next to, say, a Pulp Fiction poster. The other thing is, a part of my heart wants to believe that everyone's super-excited about Portillo's because now there's a place to get hot dogs again. I feel like Madison has such a tumultuous relationship with hot dog places. O.S.S., which was on Regent—
Scott: I'm not that crazy about hot dogs usually, but that was a good spot.
John: Well, I love hot dogs and different kinds of hot dogs, and I think the problem with those hot-dog places that didn't make it, like O.S.S. and Wiener Shop, is that they were charging like $7 for a hot dog. And this is a $3 hot dog. I would pay $3 for this normally. That's what seems reasonable to pay for just a hot dog with stuff on it.
Scott: So back to the Italian beef. Is this how you usually get this?
John: I normally get it with the gravy and stuff.
Scott: When they say "dry," they mean dry. Now, why don't we see what this tamale is like?
Scott: So it's wrapped in foil. Our server said a lot of people do order these. The grease is burning my hands and I'm undoing like three layers of wrapping on this thing...that's...not a fucking tamale. It's like meat in a corn sheath.
John: It's like a big taquito.
Scott: I just don't know about this. I'll attempt to split it—it just falls apart.
John: That's not a tamale!
Scott: No! I'm offended on behalf of the concept of tamales.
John: This looks like a gas-station burrito. The inside is a mystery. It's not just meat.
Scott: The meat in here is at least more seasoned than the Italian beef meat. There's maybe some paprika and cumin in there. I mean, a tamale in my experience usually has a husk, and the inner part of it isn't quite this crumbly. It's supposed to have some hold to it. [There are Chicago-style tamales and the Portillo's tamale is a bit closer to that, but still...no. —ed]
John: They're malleable for sure, but they're maybe a fork-and-knife situation, or just the side of the fork. I feel like this is just a sad Midwestern interpretation of a tamale. It's like the "I'm from Chicago," "No, you're from Northbrook" of tamales.
Scott: Right! It seems like the target audience for this tamale is white people who have not had real tamales. I mean, if you're in the Chicago area and there's no shortage of amazing Mexican food, why would you eat this? And why would you eat this rather than going to one of the many excellent Mexican spots in Madison?
John: It's a monstrosity. And yet, here we are. Do you like the cheese fries?
Scott: Yeah. It's a nuclear nacho-cheese type of sauce, and it's pretty good.
John: I like crisp, crinkle fries, and lava nacho cheese, because I'm a monster, but it's not fancy cheese fries. It's lava nacho cheese in a styrofoam cup that you pay an extra 79 cents for.
Scott: And Culver's has basically the same thing. [Note: Our Portillo's trip happened a day before the Beto thing.]
John: The hot dog is really good. I am really enjoying the hot dog.
Scott: Is it all-beef?
Scott: OK, that's a little better. It's the anonymous pork kind of hot dog that I can't really deal with.
John: And these tomatoes on the hot dog, they're not gross or wilted or anything like that. They seem freshly cut.
Scott: Now, if you get down to the bottom of the cake shake, there are all these cake-y crumbles settled on the bottom.
John: See, I like cake shakes a lot because they're thick. I feel like this and a hot dog are, like, a meal. Wait, are these smalls?
Scott: I think so!
Editor’s note: An earlier version of this article incorrectly lumped Rockford in with the white Chicago suburbs. A reader pointed out the error and the reference has been removed.