You're surrounded by Chicago Cubs paraphernalia and staring at the grungy convenience store across the street. A tall boy of Old Style sweats seductively beside you. The air is heavy with the scent of sauerkraut and encased meats. If you squint your eyes just right, you could imagine yourself in Chicago. But this is Wayne's Chicago Red Hots in Northeast Portland, and you're waiting on a frankfurter. Not just any frankfurter, but a Vienna all-beef Red Hot that's been "dragged troo da garden."
The Chicago Red Hot relies on specificity. It must include chopped onions, tomato wedges, neon green relish, a dill pickle spear, yellow mustard, and "sport peppers." All of this is cradled lovingly in a steamed poppy-seed bun and sprinkled with celery salt.
Wayne's Red Hot has it all, plus huge flavor. The beefy Red Hot anchors the freshness of the vegetation, while the pickle lends crunch to the texture. A volatile splash of heat is added to the whole affair from the sport peppers (pickled serranos), but what ties it all together is the celery salt.
The problem is that the Red Hot is so good, it eclipses the rest of the menu, which, while quite satisfying, just isn't as spectacular. It helps that "cooked in beer" is a common notation here. The Ditka Dog (which is, yes, cooked in beer) is a foot-long behemoth bathed in beanless chili, chopped onions, and cheddar cheese. It's notable for the gleeful reactions emitted when people see it for the first time. Frankly, it's intimidating. Still, the flavor doesn't really pop. Harry's Beer Brat is also a substantial offering, but the heaps of sauerkraut may not be tangy enough for some.
There are menu items that can stand up to the bravado of the signature dog. The Maxwell Street Polish offers sweet and smoky grilled onions, sport peppers, and a dill spear to add complexity to the mellow Polish sausage. The Halsted Hot Pastrami is a simple, meaty dream, sliced thin and tasting like it's been steeping in its own juices for hours. It is tender, juicy, and surprisingly light.
Owner and Chicago native Randy Sanders brought his food in from the street after years of operating out of a cart. Now that the operation is indoors, seating seems like a bit of an afterthought—but it's comfy enough. There are three TVs that will broadcast baseball all summer long, and Old Style tall boys are $2 a pop during Cubs games. Incidentally, beer is the perfect beverage to wash down some Wrigley Fries—thick cut potatoes topped with beanless chili, onions, and cheese. They are less a side dish and more a meal.
Baseball season has started and it's quite possible that Wayne's will become the best place in Portland to watch a Cubs game. Wrigley Field it ain't, but the food is better and you don't need plane tickets. Yeah, you'll miss out on Wrigley's historic chaos, but you can always ask an obnoxious friend to yell profanities and spill beer on you. With a Red Hot in one fist and an Old Style in the other, the distance between Portland and Chicago can be crossed, just like 'dat.