For as few fast food hot dogs as there are in the world, there are even fewer (if any) fast food dogs catering to vegetarians and vegans. Portillo’s was once maligned on Reddit for serving a “veggie dog” that was simply a smattering of Chicago Dog toppings (mustard, onions, relish) smeared on a bun with no protein to speak of. So it makes sense that Portillo’s would now be righting that wrong, stepping up to fill the void with its first-ever plant-based hot dog.
In my years as a vegetarian, all I ever wanted was meat-free hot dogs. The store-bought veggie dogs I got used to while eating meat-free in the late 2000s weren’t even trying to look like the real thing. Even when cooked, they were pale, cylindrical tubes more reminiscent of the hot dog fingers from Everything Everywhere All At Once than a nicely grilled sausage. But still, I loved them for their ability to hold pickles and onions and anything else I decided to throw on top of a bun. But what if someone really tried to replicate the hot dog itself as more than just a vehicle for condiments? Portillo’s decided to try its best.
The first-ever vegan hot dog at Portillo’s is a creation of plant-based protein production company Field Roast. The pseudo sausage, which the company sells as the Signature Stadium Dog, is made up of pea protein and is double smoked using maple hardwood chips and a combination of steam and dry heat. Compared to other plant-based dogs, it’s that smokiness that sets this item apart, a preparation that makes a huge difference in the taste.
Portillo’s serves up this meatless wonder Chicago-style, of course, topped with the traditional mustard, relish, chopped onions, tomatoes, celery salt, pickle spear, and sport peppers on a steamed poppy seed bun. It goes for just $3.89, a veritable steal in the world of plant-based fast-food items.
At first glance, this bad boy looks like real meat, down to the char from the grill, a welcome departure from the pale hot-dog-finger veggie dogs of old. And that smoked method in the preparation of the “meat” does accurately telegraph a meaty flavor, at least when it’s dragged through the garden. When I took a small bite of the hot dog on its own, however, the vegetal flavors of the pea protein came through more strongly, shattering the illusion.
Where you can really tell the difference in all veggie dogs vs real ones is the texture, and while Field Roast’s version gets close, it’s still missing that snap of the casing around the sausage filling. That’s easier to forgive with the Chicago-style toppings piled on top—the pickle spear provides some crunch and much-needed variety in texture. On its own, though, the hot dog would just blend into the bun and any sauces (just not ketchup if you’re in Chicago!) to turn into a mushy mess.
The Portillo’s veggie dog is begging us to consider what we really want from a plant-based hot dog. What does anyone want from a meat hot dog, for that matter? If you’re looking for a snappy, substance-filled tube, that’s one thing. And it’s a thing the plant-based market has yet to replicate. But if you’re looking for a vehicle for a variety of toppings cozily tucked inside a bun with whispers of a backyard barbecue incorporated into the flavor, well then, Portillo’s Garden Dog is the perfect dog for you.