611 E. Golf Rd, Schaumburg, IL, USA

Portillo's is a bona fide Chicago classic that, for whatever reason, became the exportable, go-to "Chicago experience," to the point where it's almost more a theme restaurant than an authentic Chicago eatery anymore. Much as Uno's Chicago Grill offers a sliver of what was not even all that authentic to begin with, Portillo's thrives in ways that hole-in-the-wall local joints never could, regardless of how sublime their food. It's understandable. It's familiar. It rings true. Surely with so many autographed pictures of Jim Belushi on the wall, it must be the real deal, right?

Yes and no. I'm not Jim Belushi's cardiologist, but if he eats at Portillo's half as much as he signs autographed pictures for them, he'll be reunited with his brother in no time. (?) For authentic Chicago food, you can certainly do a lot worse than Portillo's; try any of the countless "Chicago restaurants" in Los Angeles if you want to see how bad it can get. And to its credit, Portillo's does still pull in the locals, and even Chicago food snobs like me can't deny they pretty much have it down pat. Yet there's something not quite fun about eating at Portillo's … there's no cranky proprietor yapping at you from behind the grill; the clientele is by and large not the working-class fellows who wolf down a beef and sausage combo every other day. It's somehow too streamlined, too sanitized. What it takes to build a successful chain restaurant – and surely that is the goal of any of 'em, right? – is inevitably what takes away the inherent charm that makes a place great in the first place.

So Portillo's is not the first place I want to go whenever I'm back in Chicago; I can list about thirty other joints I prefer, and would even rather check out places I've never tried than spend a meal at what is basically the California Pizza Kitchen of Chicago-style restaurants. But in a pinch, say, if I have only twenty minutes to spare before I have to get to the airport and there are no other joints to be found, I will gladly pop into a Portillos's for a beef, a dog, or a polish. This time, I was in that exact situation, and dropped in for a Maxwell Street. The Schaumburg location is densely crowded, but the line moves fast. The polish was good – a bit over-charred, perhaps – but nicely slathered in mustard and grilled onions; I scarfed it down in about two minutes and left completely satisfied.

Perhaps Portillo's actually makes the most sense outside Chicago, serving as a bastion of real Chicago-style food for expatriates like myself who have made our way to other corners of the world. Surely there will be one in Vegas someday, if there is not one there already, serving the Chicago style to people who don't know the difference, nor care that they're actually getting a pretty accurate taste.

Review by Pauline Kale, November 2010