Well, one kid off of school today and the other had a Dr appt that took me up towards Buena Park, so afterwards, kids in tow, it was off to discover Portillo's in SoCal. It officially opened 2 days ago and when we arrived at 12:45 it was packed shoulder to shoulder, all tables filled indoor and out.
What struck me most was how many employees were working in the kitchen area and in the restaurant seating area itself...must have been at least 50 and probably 70-75. They cranked the people through like clockwork and watching the kitchen people, order takers, cashiers and servers at the counter was pretty amazing.
We got the orders placed...combo, burger and hot dog along with fries and drinks. Prices are 15-20% higher than in Chicago area locations but that wasn't stopping the flow of people. For instance the italian beef was $4.65 vs $3.89 and the hamburger was 3.09 vs $2.69. Some of the differences were even more pronounced. Orders are served wrapped in paper (burger in styrofoam) and served in paper bags (an italian beef to go had an additional plastic wrapper around it). Portillo's will get no award for environmental friendliness...they us a LOT of paper goods!
Ok, the important part...how's the food. Answer, delicious but still some reservations. The hot dog was devoured by my 1+ yo daughter, and after fixing a wrong order on the cheeseburger, my son devoured what has to rank with Ruby's as one of the best burgers in SoCal (hey, In-N-Out is good, but this is well beyond it IMHO). The crinkle cut fries are a Portillo's staple and they were great. The combo I had was very very good...just one disappointment...not NEARLY enough beef in it. What was there was very flavorful, more so that I usually give Portillo's credit for, but I was disppointed not in the size of the sandwich itself, but the amount of meat in it.
As noted before, this Portillo's has about half of its seating outdoors overlooking the drive-through line and "scenic" La Palma Ave. Due to the crowd we had to struggle to grab an outdoor table and them I had to leave my 2 young kids to wait for the food luckily they were very good and I did keep an eye on them). Coming back to my table with the food I bumped into...none other than Dick Portillo himself and chatted with him a bit.
I think Portillo's will not only survive but thrive out here. The menu is so large and varied that its appeal goes far beyond Chicagoans -- the big question is will they discover and accept it! The price/value proposition is a difficult one...indeed one of the knocks of Portillo's in Chicago is that they are too pricey compared to competition...and as noted these prices are a good 15-20% higher from drinks and fries to meals! However, they compare favorably with a lot of places in SoCal...it's just that the food tastes better! If anything the look in Mr. Portillo's eye told me that not only will he be building more Portillo's in SoCal, but that he probably already wishes he built this one bigger!
I'm sure we'll make a return visit soon...and then a taste-off between Portillo's, Chicago's Best (Irvine), and Taste Chicago (Burbank) will probably be in order!