Ever since Popeyes debuted its infamous chicken sandwich in 2019, seemingly every fast food chain has tried to ride the poultry purveyor's crispy, deep-fried coattails—from Wendy's to McDonald's to Burger King. By now, we're so deep into the Chicken Sandwich Wars that even beloved regional chains are joining the fray, bringing some new twists to the fried bird formula.
Portillo's Spicy Chicken Sandwich has been available at a few of the chain's Chicago locations for several weeks now, allowing the restaurants to test the new product ahead of its wide release. As of today, you'll be able to grab the new sando at any Portillo's location, including ones in Wisconsin, Michigan, Minnesota, Indiana, Florida and California.
While the Spicy Chicken Sandwich comes on a toasted brioche bun with a custom fried chicken patty that's caked in a spicy batter, the real selling-point of the new creation is the Hot Giardiniera Sauce—a proprietary creamy substance that channels the spicy flavor of the oily pickled veggie relish that's a common addition to Italian beef sandwiches and other Chicago fare. Portillo's is so confident in its new condiment that you can add it to any other item on the menu (for a small fee) or order a cup of it to dip your fries, onion rings or chicken tenders in.
When I had the chance to taste Portillo's Spicy Chicken Sandwich just ahead of its wide release, the top and bottom bun was slathered in the Hot Giardiniera Sauce, overpowering all of the other elements of the sandwich with a relatively gentle but noticeable heat. The spicy batter that encases the chicken patty adds a bit of a kick, but the amount of chicken on this sandwich is insubstantial in comparison to the offerings at Popeye's and McDonald's. There's enough meat to remind you that you're eating a chicken sandwich, but you won't get any of the big crispy bites that other chains have perfected.
Still, there's something to be said for Portillo's focus on tongue-tingling flavor, as no major chain has managed to capture the pleasant, lingering heat that the Hot Giardiniera Sauce provides. And by opting for lettuce and tomatoes instead of the Southern-style pickles, Portillo's offering gives the appearance of being a bit less of a sodium bomb (though you can easily modify the sandwich by ordering it with pickles and without lettuce and tomatoes).
Portillo's has long had breaded and char-broiled chicken sandwiches on its menu, but they've never been something we'd recommend ordering over a Chicago-style hot dog, a Maxwell Street Polish or an Italian beef. Portillo's Spicy Chicken Sandwich doesn't eclipse those Chicago street food classics either, but it's probably the best chicken-based item on the restaurant's menu. And even if you don't love the sandwich, the Hot Giardiniera Sauce might be a good way to mix up some of your favorite Portillo's dishes (just keep it far away from the Chocolate Cake Shake).