A few years back, a couple of Portillo’s restaurants opened up in the east valley of the Phoenix metro area — one near Salt River Field (spring training home of the Colorado Rockies and the Arizona Diamondbacks) and one near Sloan Park (spring training home of the Chicago Cubs). As far as I can tell, both Chicago-based restaurants are thriving. Their success is no surprise to this blogger because Portillo’s Italian beef sandwiches are delicious and their onion rings are good enough to warrant a drive across town. Perhaps most important, it seems to me that Mesa is where Illinois comes to retire. Hence, no learning curve needed.
A few months ago, another Chicago icon — perhaps the Icon to define all Icons — made its way to the Sonoran desert. The neon lights of the area’s first White Castle were turned on, and the endless line of traffic into the restaurant, and perhaps even more important, the drive-thru, began to form. Twenty-four hours of nonstop binge-eating commenced……
Bill was very excited to hear the news. Being a Chicago native, he has eaten his share of White Castle sliders. Seven or eight at a time, as is typical. They’re small, after all, and just about the only place open at 3 o’clock in the morning after a night on the town.
The first time I met Bill’s mom and dad was on a visit at Thanksgiving. Not only did I meet his parents, but I also was introduced to White Castle hamburgers. Thanksgiving dinner wasn’t going to be served until early evening, and the McLain consensus, including his mother, was that a few White Castle sliders around lunchtime would tide us over.
Kris, meet White Castle. I eagerly took my first bite. I found myself uncharacteristically speechless. While those around me were eagerly chowing down the tiny sandwiches, I was dumbfounded. I felt like Cindy Lou Who when she spotted the Grinch stealing Christmas and asked “Why, Santa Claus, why?” As I watched them eat the soggy, tasteless food item (I didn’t know what to call it, but hamburger was not one of my choices), I bit my tongue to stop myself from saying, “Why, McLain family, why?”
They had no flavor. None.
Finally, yesterday morning, I gave in to Bill’s excited and frequent requests that we eat lunch at the new White Castle……
We drove the nearly-30 minutes to the restaurant, stood in line for another 20 minutes, ordered our shareable pack of original sliders, and waited another 20 minutes for our order. We sat down to eat. Bill finished one sandwich in a couple of bites, and reached for a second. He ate the second sandwich much slower. I think I heard him sigh. About a bite into his third, he looked at me with sad eyes and said, “These are really bad, aren’t they?”
I of course had figured that out after my first bite. I might as well have been standing at the kitchen counter in Chicago some 30 years ago trying to swallow my very first White Castle hamburger.
“Yes,” I told him, “they really are.”
We brought the rest home for Austin and Lilly who have enough Chicago blood in them from their father’s side to love them.
“They just didn’t taste good,” Bill said to me as we drove home. “The buns were…..” And he stopped. Then he said (direct quote, hand to God), “…..I just can’t talk about it. It’s too sad.”