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Photo by Amy TheiligThe fat man was quiet, overtaken by the kind of hush that paralyzes humans when they step inside the Sistine Chapel or view the birth of their first-born. He was just one of the hundreds who had gathered in Buena Park for the unveiling of Portillo's, a legendary Chicago-based hot dog chain that opened its first California branch on Oct. 11.
The double-lane drive-through window line stretched into the parking lot that day. Inside, patrons ambled around as cooks in newsboy hats shouted out orders with clever rhymes like "Number 123, I wish it was me!" or "Number 144, let's get you out the door!" But the fat man remained silent.
A blond cutie asked the fat man for his order. She ran down the specials: hamburgers, salads, chili. Silence. Hot dogs, Italian beef, chocolate cake. Finally, the guy spoke but one wordâ€"a moan, really: "Wooooooooow!"
That's the best summation of Portillo's, a Chicago culinary institution as beloved as Morton's or Vienna Beef. Started by Chicagoan Dick Portillo in 1963 in a six-by-12-foot trailer, it became the largest privately owned restaurant corporation in the Midwest, with 42 restaurants and more than 3,600 employees. Portillo opened his first California restaurant in Buena Park, according to The Orange County Register, because company studies showed Buena Park is the epicenter of Southern California's large Midwesterner community (for once, the tiny town's motto, "Center of the Southland," doesn't sound so preposterous).
Each Portillo's location is designed differently and touches upon a different segment of the Second City's wacky history -- so Orange County gets Eliot Ness. Tommy gunners protect giant boilers on the second floor; mug shots of Al Capone and pals stare grimly ahead from various spots. There are "vintage" signs, bricks -- tourists snap away, but it's really just distracting clutter for everyone else.
It's mostly residents, however, who are flocking to Portillo's. The crowds won't die down for a while, but even so the wait is minimal -- maybe five minutes, tops. But the chain stakes its reputation on three items: the all-beef hot dog, the Italian beef sandwich and what radio commercials boast is a "to die for" chocolate cake.
But apprehension took hold of me opening day when I unfolded the wrapping in which nestled the hefty Italian beef sandwich: the crust of the French roll was soggy. Few things annoy me more than a soggy sandwich -- human rights violations, reggaeton and then soggy sandwiches; I'm tolerant even of month-old milk. But it was a light gravy that wetted the sandwich, an incredibly flavorful gravy that soaked the luscious beef shavings with a peppery brio. Little else decorated the Italian roast beef hoagie -- a couple of pickled carrot slices and chunks of hot peppers that singed, rather than scorched, like a good hot pepper should. Sure, the sandwich was soggy, but that was me mugging for the news cameras, sensuously licking gravy off my fingers.
The beef dog is equally moist, done Chicago-style with a steamed poppy-seed bun; sweet relish and mustard; garnishes of onion, tomatoes and peppers on top; and a pickle on the side. The tomatoes were as ripe as something picked midsummer; the pickle crunched. The bun, though steamed, didn't immediately dissipate in my mouth. Most impressive was the dawg itself: hefty yet light, sweet and as moist as a well-done kielbasa. Although Chicago Harv's in Fullerton, Mustard's over in Los Alamitos and Seal Beach's Champs have made superlative Chicago dogs for years, Portillo's already bests them.
The same can't be said of the much-heralded chocolate cake, unfortunately. The cake possessed a springy body and frosting worthy of Hershey's -- delicious, but not "to die for," as the radio ads claimed. But this didn't matter -- it left a fat man speechless and this little boy full.
PORTILLO'S, 8390 LA PALMA AVE., BUENA PARK, (714) 220-6400; WWW.PORTILLOS.COM. OPEN MON.-THURS., 10:30 A.M.-10:30 P.M.; FRI.-SAT., 10:30 A.M.-11 P.M.; SUN., 11:30 A.M.-10:30 P.M. DINNER FOR TWO, $5-$14, EXCLUDING DRINKS. BEER, WINE.