Wienerschnitzel Vs. Portillo's: A Chicago Dog Showdown

Which hot dog chain serves the better Chicago dog? There is a distinct answer.

Wienerschnitzel is a hot-dog-centric fast food chain currently in the midst of expanding, but many are wondering if the California-based restaurant famous for its chili dogs will be able to cut the mustard in the Midwest. The Chicago area is full of great hot dogs, but if Wienerschnitzel can offer something other fast casual places don't, there could be some healthy competition on the horizon. Translation: In order to stand up to a beloved juggernaut like Portillo's, Wienerschnitzel is going to have to nail the fundamentals. Namely, a classic Chicago dog.

To assess Wienerschnitzel's hot dog prowess, I compared its Chicago dog directly against Portillo's in a head-to-head taste test. The results were definitive.

Wienerschnitzel’s menu, explained

The Whataburger-esque, steeple-like construction of Wienerschnitzel's buildings continues to beckon hungry, hardworking Californians in droves. The chain currently stands at 318 locations in 11 states, and it's growing—just like Portillo's, which is still under 100 locations but strategically plotting its expansion. If you've never been, the menu at Wienerschnitzel is relatively standard Californian fast food fare, with an emphasis on chili. And despite a slew of burgers, sandwiches, and even breakfast sandwiches, the hot dogs are what the brand is most known for.

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Most people come to Wienerschnitzel to get chili cheese dogs and chili cheese fries, but the Chicago dog stands out for the simple fact that there just aren't many Chicago dogs here in California. I was surprised to learn that there's a Portillo's in Buena Park, a city in Orange County within driving distance of Los Angeles. As luck would have it, just down the road from that Portillo's is a Wienerschnitzel—perhaps a peek into many Midwesterners' futures. Thus, subjecting the two Chicago dogs to a fresh and fair taste test was totally feasible. Does Portillo's have anything to worry about as Wienerschnitzel forges its path eastward? Here are the results:

Portillo’s Chicago Dog

First and foremost, the Chicago dog at Portillo's looks like a Chicago dog. It's loaded with the proper accoutrements and the iconic poppy seed bun. In fact, that bun proves to be the most important component of the entire experience.

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This Chicago-style hot dog is cohesive in a literal way. The ingredients don't slip and slide around. Every bite holds together, and it's because the hot dog bun is soft, squishy, and dense. The sport peppers, pickle, tomato, and onions seem to practically stick to the bun itself, which is delightfully sweet and nutty. Also, it helps that the tomato, pickle, onion, and peppers aren't sopping wet; sometimes people forget to dry their produce properly.

Portillo's Chicago dog is a great standard. My only knock on it is that the hot dog itself doesn't have enough flavor. I'm not sure whether Portillo's is using the classic Vienna Beef dogs at all its nationwide locations, but to me this tastes like something different. Still, the hot dog is zesty, fresh, and slightly sweet. This is not the best Chicago dog in the world, but it works.

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Wienerschnitzel’s Chicago Dog

The Chicago dog at Wienerschnitzel features the chain's original all-beef hot dog in a steamed bun with fresh tomato, onions, a pickle spear, relish, sport peppers, and French's tangy mustard. This hot dog also has a visible amount of celery salt, which I couldn't really detect in Portillo's version. There is one glaring deficiency with this hot dog, however: Wienerschnitzel doesn't use a poppy seed bun.

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Actually, the even bigger problem here is that the standard bun Wienerschnitzel uses for its hot dogs just isn't very good, simply a standard ballpark hot dog bun. Structurally, this hot dog is a mess as a result. It slips and slides and falls apart too easily. The bread lacks good squish, and any softness too, existing in direct opposition to the other ingredients and refusing to provide any flavor of its own. That's a big problem.

Everything else is nearly identical to Portillo's, down to the flavor of the frank, which is standard but not spectacular. I do wish both hot dogs had more of that pure beef flavor. At Wienerschnitzel, customers have the option option of subbing out the classic hot dog for a premium beef or Polish brat. Though I haven't tried the premium beef, I'd suggest going for that and hoping for some better flavor.

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The tomatoes, pickles, relish, and sport peppers all carry the tangy, sweet, fresh taste that you'd expect atop any dog that's been "dragged through the garden." Those vegetables aren't wet, either, and I'm glad both chains get that right. While the addition of more celery salt is welcome, the lack of quality bun shoots Portillo's far above Wienerschnitzel. I never really imagined a Chicago dog without a poppy seed bun, and seeing it is a bit upsetting.

Which is better: Portillo’s or Wienerschnitzel?

The two Chicago dogs are very similar in flavor, but given a choice between the two chains, Portillo's is preferred because the classic poppy seed bun actually holds its contents together. Wienerschnitzel, though a great option for chili dogs (try the junkyard dog), falls short in trying to recreate a classic Chicago hot dog. The chain should probably just stick to chili.

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I imagine that people living in Chicago get their classic hot dogs from many independent spots, not just Portillo's. For residents of California, however, Portillo's is a fine option. Southern California is known more for its bacon-wrapped hot dogs and chili cheese dogs. Finding a classic Chicago dog in the region is rare, and to get an exemplary one, you need to skip the California born-and-bred chain and head straight to Portillo's.

If Wienerschnitzel does make its way to the Chicago area, I don't think Portillo's has anything to worry about. The former does a lot of things right, but a Chicago dog isn't one of them.

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