Restaurant of the Week: Portillo’s Hot Dogs

Portillo’s Hot Dogs, 12480 Day St. (at Gateway), Moreno Valley; open daily, 10:30 a.m. to midnight

I’d never heard of Portillo’s until a reader, and then my editor, both brought it up to me as a place that sells Chicago-style hot dogs. They were referring to the Portillo’s in Riverside County; there’s another in SoCal in Buena Park. Buena Park is slightly closer to my home, but showing a little Inland Empire pride, I ventured to the one in Moreno Valley.

The exterior looks like an old brick building on three sides and like a chrome diner on the fourth. Those are Chicago-ish scenes in the murals. An employee at the door greeted me, asked if I’d been there before, explained where to order and handed me a menu. That’s unusual in my experience, but welcome.

The interior is pretty large and has lots of Chicago-ish tin signs, maps, photos, etc. Jazz and pop from the prewar period played. Apparently only old Chicago is iconic.

The menu has hot dogs, hamburgers, chicken sandwiches, beef and sausage sandwiches, salads and baby back ribs. There were promotional signs for an apple walnut salad. Fine if you’re a regular, but not what you’d order as a first-timer.

Faced with a choice of two iconic items, the Chicago hot dog and the Italian beef sandwich, I decided to go big and get both. After all, I’d made a 45-minute drive, and who knew if I would ever return.

So: hot dog ($3), Italian beef sandwich ($6), fries ($2.09) and chocolate cake shake ($4.19), small size. That’s about 2,000 calories, by the way.

Frankly, haha, Chicago dogs have never been my thing, laden as they are with a veritable salad of pickle slice, tomato slices, onions, relish and sport peppers, but this was a good version of something I’m not a fan of.

I’ve had Italian beef only once or twice, at the former Nancy’s Pizza in La Verne, which was served on garlic bread. The Portillo’s version, on french bread, is probably more traditional. You can get mozzarella and sweet or hot peppers, or get it dipped, but I just got it as it comes. The roast beef was very soft, as gravy is involved, and so was the bread. It was like a softer version of a Philippe french dip. I liked it, although I could see how mozzarella and/or peppers could spice it up. (The photo on the website looks good.)

The crinkle cut fries, an afterthought (I’d decided not to order them, but found myself ordering them) were crispy and very good. Portillo’s sells chocolate cake, but seeing chocolate cake shake on the menu was intriguing. At first, as I was eating it with a spoon, it was simply a chocolate cake with flecks. Then, suddenly, here was a chunk of cake. And there were more where that came from. That was fun.

This Illinois (but not Chicago) expat enjoyed the experience. And having gone big, I went home. And napped.

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Restaurant of the Week: Dog Haus, RC

Dog Haus, 7815 Monet Ave. in Victoria Gardens, Rancho Cucamonga; open daily

A Pasadena-based hot dog chain, Dog Haus opened over the summer in Victoria Gardens along what we might call the millennial-friendly street with wider sidewalks, benches, charging stations and, increasingly, a more eclectic range of shops and restaurants.

I’ve been to the original location a time or two and had something of a mixed reaction, liking what they were trying to do — quality links without hormones, etc., and on King’s Hawaiian rolls — but not entirely sold on the rolls compared to good ol’ buns. Still, that the chain was opening one out here was welcome, and I was interested in giving it a try again.

The VG location opens to the sidewalk in decent weather, with a wraparound bar/counter where you can get a local beer (including Claremont Craft Ales, Hamilton Family and Dale Brothers) and the food. There are also tables, a casual counter and communal seating, all under Edison bulbs. I was there on a warm December evening (remember those?) and the restaurant was comfortable even with the door open and grating up.

I got the Das Brat ($8), a bratwurst with sauerkraut, onions and mustard. Very good dog, and the roll caught me by surprise, lightly toasted to a sort of buttery perfection. I’ve been back since and the roll was close but not quite as prime. Still, I’m sold. My only beef, ha ha, is that Dog Haus really lays on the mustard, as you can see. It’s a bit much and a bit messy: I’d prefer about half as much, personally.

The menu has a few burgers too, plus ice cream from Alhambra favorite Fosselman’s. (Note to whoever handles the website: Don’t say you’re “proudly serving” that brand and then misspell its name.) So it’s a limited menu, but Dog Haus sticks to what it does best, and does it pretty well.

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Restaurant of the Week: Windy C’s

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Windy C’s Chicago Hot Dogs, 140 S. Mountain Ave. (at 8th), Upland

Upland is now home to two independent, non-Wienerschnitzel, non-Jody Maroni hot dog joints, which I believe is two more than any other city in the valley. Johnson’s arrived this fall. Windy C’s (visit its website here) has been around since 1999.

It’s a dinky place with 11 seats in a storefront by a Rubio’s and in the same center as Fresh & Easy and Dollar Tree. A brief experiment with a second location downtown (on C, appropriately) failed, but the Mountain storefront continues.

I’ve been there a few times over the years. I don’t have any experience with Chicago hot dogs, so I can’t say how this place measures up. Chicago dogs are loaded up with too many condiments for my taste anyway. But I went in again recently for a Wrigley ($7.39 as a combo with soda and fries), which comes with sauerkraut, mustard, cheese and a pickle slice on a steamed bun. I liked it.

Other dogs have Windy City-friendly names like Rush Street and Comiskey, and they also serve chili, corn, Polish dogs and Italian beef. There’s a signed photo on the wall from Richard Daley, who presumably signed the photo in the City of Broad Shoulders rather than the City of Gracious Living.

Windy C’s uses Vienna beef dogs, which owner Freddy Johnson says is more authentic than the red hots at Johnson’s. (Note how the competing place’s name is also his own name. That’s gotta smart.) Signs proclaim that Vienna beef is the official dog of the Sox and Cubs.

Now, about the service. A lot of people hate it here. As one Yelper put it: “I believe the owner is at his wit’s end and has the attitude that he’s super fed up with your BS even though you’ve never met him before.” Overall the place gets 1.5 stars. The New Diner blog didn’t like it either. Two reviews on Trip Advisor are brutal, with one comparing Johnson to “Seinfeld’s” Soup Nazi and other other saying the owner laughed at his complaint.

Johnson is abrupt and that obviously rubs a lot of people the wrong way, although from my observation over a lunch hour he has friendlier interplay with customers he knows. People always wonder how he can stay in business, but the New Diner asked that question in 2005, and you’ll notice Windy C’s is still hanging tough. People who aren’t on the Internet must be made of sterner stuff.

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Restaurant of the Week: Costco


This week’s restaurant stretches the definition: Costco, with locations at 11800 Fourth St. (at I-15), Rancho Cucamonga, and 9404 Central Ave. (at I-10), Montclair

When a few budget-conscious friends invited me to lunch at Costco, I wasn’t sure what to make of it. I’m not a Costco member and I didn’t even know you could eat there. But they said anyone can eat at the cafe, which is on the patio, and that the $1.50 hot dog and soda special couldn’t be beat.

So a group of us met at the Rancho location, pictured above, which is across Fourth from Ontario Mills. You line up, place your order at a window from the very basic menu depicted in giant blow-up photos on the block wall above, get your food and sit at the one of the plastic benches on the utilitarian, hose-it-off-before-closing-time patio.

I got only the 1/4-lb. hot dog and 20-oz. soda, $1.62 with tax, to relish the novelty of the cheapest lunch I’ve had since Del Taco halted its three tacos for 99 cents deal.

The hot dogs and Polish sausage are Hebrew National, all-beef. I had the Polish and asked for the off-menu sauerkraut, one friend’s tip.

The dog didn’t live up to the hype and didn’t taste like anything other than a hot dog, but for the price, it was outstanding.

Curious about the $1.99 pizza slices, I visited the Montclair Costco, pictured below, a few days later. This time I got the frozen yogurt chocolate and vanilla swirl ($1.35) as well as a combo slice, and no drink. Total: $3.61. While these prices, and the 59-cent soda with free refill, are eye-poppingly low, my guess is that with its high volume and low overhead, Costco still makes a profit.

The pizza slice was only average, which still made it better than some pizza I’ve paid more for. The swirl was tasty but as it came in a 5-inch-tall plastic cup, there was enough for a whole family.

It would take only three more visits for me to try every type of food on the menu: the chicken caesar salad, the turkey wrap, the berry sundae, the berry smoothie, the ice cream bar and the most mysterious item, which is called the chicken bake. It seems to contain chicken, cheese and bacon, all deep-fried into a hot dog-like form. It’s oddly compelling.

Social critics will grind their teeth at hearing that at $3.99, the salad and turkey wrap, the healthiest items, are the most expensive other than a full pizza, thus encouraging us all to stuff our faces with hot dogs and chicken bakes.

The two Costco cafes are identical except in Rancho there were ropes to funnel us through in one line, whereas in Montclair we lined up at individual windows, like we were at a ballpark. Also, in Rancho the patio has overhead heaters. Perhaps corporate HQ thinks Montclair has a naturally hotter climate. (This text was written in 2008 and the photos taken in 2014, when the rope lines appear to be history.)

Both locations are good for people-watching if you take an academic interest in the type of people who shop at Costco. In fact that thought was just crossing my mind in Montclair when a mother with two children in tow passed by pushing a shopping cart containing one item: a crate-like box of diapers with the number 264 on the side.


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