Photo by Meredith Heil for Thrillist
While now synonymous with all sorts of blood pressure-raising snacks like Italian Beef sandwiches, chocolate cake-spiked milkshakes, char-broiled burgers, and even a saucy slab of ribs or two, upbeat Midwestern chain Portillo’s built its rapidly expanding empire on the back of a single product: the classic Chicago Dog. Dick Portillo kickstarted the venture back in 1963, opening a small hot dog stand in near-suburban Villa Park, where he set the standard for the overstuffed regional style (a Chicago Dog is defined as an all-beef frank, piled high with yellow mustard, neon relish, chopped white onion, tomato slices or wedges, pickled sport peppers, a dill pickle spear, and celery salt tucked into a freshly steamed poppy seed bun). It’s hefty, yet portable enough to easily crush while huddled in the hallowed stands of Wrigley Field. It’s a flawless dish and, most notably, it should never, ever, under any circumstances call for a drizzle of flavor-annihilating ketchup.
Fast-forward to the present, and while the Chicago Dog has undoubtedly secured its righteous place in the city’s culinary repertoire, the people are starting to yearn for more. Between the environmental impacts of factory farming, the rising cost of meat, and a shift toward a more health-conscious culture, the all-beef part of the equation doesn’t exactly have the same appeal it once enjoyed. Today’s consumer is looking for a lighter, plant-based option, whether it’s to suit the occasional meatless Monday or an animal-free lifestyle overhaul. And until this very week, the only veggie dog Portillo’s hawked was, according to this 2020 tweet, markedly lacking in the dog department.
Enter Field Roast, the multifaceted plant-based food empire famous for its line of innovative meat and dairy alternatives. Previously focused on the grocery store market, the Seattle-born enterprise decided to join forces with the Portillo’s folks to go where no reputable Chicago Dog has gone before—the vegetarian route. To celebrate the Garden Dog’s launch, the iconic restaurant group invited journalists, influencers, media personalities, and—no joke—the author of the above tweet, to come down and try the menu addition on for size. Here’s what you need to know.
Manufactured in partnership with long-standing plant-based food company Field Roast, the Garden Dog is centered around a Non-GMO Project-verified vegan sausage made primarily from pea protein. Other ingredients include potato starch, vital wheat gluten, brown rice protein, faba bean protein, beet powder, garlic powder, smoked sugar, onion powder, and paprika. Portillo’s assures that there’s nary an artificial flavor or color in sight.
The veggie dog is smoked, seasoned, and char-grilled on the same cooktop as the regular dogs, making cross-contamination a potential risk factor for the strict meat-free set. It’s then plopped onto a squishy poppy seed bun and, of course, dragged through the ol’ garden by way of yellow mustard, neon relish, chopped white onion, sliced tomatoes, spicy sport peppers, a dill pickle spear, and a few good shakes of celery salt. The result is a plump and perky handheld creation, a cornucopia of toppings threatening to bust through its pillowy shell all while a campfire-esque, griddle-kissed scent snakes its way through those glorious accouterments.
Upon first examination, the Garden Dog looked and smelled just like the real deal. The sausage appeared ample, not dried up or too skinny like some veggie dogs, and the aroma was equal parts meaty and vinegar-tinged from the toppings. Biting into it, the vegetables hit first with an explosively fresh bang, followed by the dog’s satisfying, comforting thickness nestled into the butt of the cushiony bun. The sausage tasted great and shouldered its hearty, dense texture with ease. It definitely served its purpose—not merely another layer of window dressing.
The only thing missing was the snap. Oh, the snap—that toothsome pop that can only come from ripping off a piece of pristinely blistered sausage casing with your canines like a wild animal tearing flesh from a bone. Too much? Perhaps. And perhaps it was also too much for the hard-working folks at Field Roast, who failed to fully nail this one vital feature when designing their Portillo’s-bound creation. “The Garden Dog shares similarities to the traditional hot dog,” read the new menu item’s explainer. “But [it] will not taste exactly the same and will not have the classic snap when you take a bite.”
The only way I could imagine conjuring up that signature snap would be to cook the everloving heck out of it atop an open flame. But would the change in cooking methods transform the sausage’s supple innards into a rock-hard coil of cardboard? At the end of the day, you have to pick your battles, and it seems that for Portillo’s, chasing the snap just wasn’t worth tossing the proverbial baby out with the bathwater.
After a single Garden Dog—and, okay, probably more than my fair share of dreamy, incredibly salty crinkle-cut fries—I left the retro-styled quick-serve joint feeling full and happy. With help from Field Roast, Portillo’s set out to make a plant-based hot dog that could stand up to its all-beef predecessor, and to that extent, they definitely succeeded. The infamous 2020 tweeter concurred.
As a Chicagoan, will I be making the switch permanently? Most likely, that’s a no for me, but I will rest easier knowing that thousands of veggie-fueled Midwesterners will now have something new and delicious to chew on—one that most certainly does not require ketchup.
Want more Thrillist? Follow us on Instagram, Twitter, Pinterest, YouTube, TikTok, and Snapchat.