Portillo’s enters the chicken sandwich wars with a perfectly decent offering

portillo's spicy chicken sandwich
Photo: Dennis Lee

If we don’t make it apparent enough, The Takeout is really proud of being based in Chicago. We love our local traditions and our local chains, and one in particular that has a big soft spot in our hearts is Portillo’s. If you’re from around here (or if you’ve eaten at one of the locations in California, Arizona, or Florida), you’ll primarily know Portillo’s for its gold-standard natural casing Chicago-style hot dogs and Italian beef.

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But right now Portillo’s is trying something sneaky: a spicy fried chicken sandwich. That’s right. Even our hometown can’t resist jumping in into this gladiator pit full of chicken feathers. The chicken sandwich is only in its test phase, offered at 18 locations in Illinois and Indiana. But at this point, a plain old fried chicken sandwich isn’t enough to capture everyone’s short attention spans and keep their stomachs occupied. So how does a hometown chain take on something old and make it new again? The answer is something that Portillo’s is calling Hot Giardiniera Sauce, which isn’t too far off from giardiniera mayo.

Giardiniera is the quintessential Chicago condiment. The spicy pickled vegetable mix—usually some combination of sport peppers or serranos, carrots, cauliflower, celery, green olives, onion, and garlic, all soaked in oil—is perfect for sandwiches, notably Italian beef. Portillo’s knows how much we love our giardiniera, so the restaurant blitzed it up with some “creamy hot sauce” (or mayo?), betting that this’ll be the bait that gets us hooked.

top down photo of fried chicken sandwich
Photo: Dennis Lee

The Portillo’s spicy chicken sandwich is otherwise the standard combination of fried chicken patty, lettuce, and tomato on a brioche bun. Aside from the Chicago-ified mayo, it’s pretty much the same as Wendy’s spicy chicken sandwich. I mean, why mess with a perfectly good thing, especially when you know it’ll sell?

underside of the top bun of chicken sandwich, with sauce visible
Photo: Dennis Lee

I still hate these lid-open sandwich shots because they’re always kind of gross, but if you were curious, the Hot Giardiniera Sauce has an orange tint and visible bits of the condiment chopped up in it. Woo! But is that enough to make a big difference in the spicy chicken sandwich turf wars?

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Unfortunately, by itself, no. After a few bites, you don’t really notice the sauce all that much, if at all, unless you’re concentrating very hard. It’s mostly there to keep the sandwich from getting too dry; most of the medium-level spice is in the breading on the chicken patty. That said, the sandwich overall is pretty good, and I definitely prefer it over Wendy’s. Even after a little bit of transit time (15 minutes) the chicken stayed nice and crunchy and wasn’t dried out.

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I think what would have been more innovative in a simpler, more subversive way would have been to add unadulterated giardiniera to the sandwich. Then it’d be like staking a spiritual claim to it, Chicago-style. Good thing you can just ask for the original chunky stuff if you’d like. You can also buy the Hot Giardiniera Sauce on the side for dipping; I imagine it’d be pretty good with onion rings.

So, for those of you who have a fear of missing out on these sorts of things, I am here to tell you that you’re not missing out on anything monumental. But if you’ve got an itch that only a fried chicken sandwich can scratch, it’ll definitely hit the spot, and better than some other place’s offerings (again, such as Wendy’s). Plus Portillo’s has cheese fries and a chocolate cake shake (way better than a Frosty, if you ask me). Those are major selling points.

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As I mentioned, the spicy chicken sandwich is currently only in a small test zone, but don’t be surprised if you see it at Portillo’s nationwide later this year.

Staff writer at The Takeout. Also: Saveur Humor Blog Award Winner, professional pizza maker, and insufferable troublemaker.

DISCUSSION

My brother loves Portillo’s, perhaps a little too much. The Italian beef and the dogs are great but I suggested that he have a salad now and then. I informed him that, yes, they also have salads. He was unaware of this and it’s been ten years of his being a regular there.