May 17, 10am, the Garden Dog, Portillo’s vegetable-based alternative to the traditional hot dog, goes on sale. Around 11am, I step to the counter and order one…along with one of Portillo’s traditional all-beef hot dogs.

In a side-by-side tasting of the Garden Dog and the traditional Portillo’s hot dog, we came to three conclusions:

1.    With the signature condiments (pickle spear, tomatoes, pickled sport peppers, mustard, raw onion, iridescent green-blue relish, celery salt) and the regular poppy seed bun, if your first bite was of the Garden Dog, you might mistakenly believe it was a traditional dog. The flavors are *close*.

2.    In the bun, Garden Dog and traditional dog look almost identical; upon closer, examination, however, you’ll see that the Garden Dog is darker, almost brown, and drier-looking, while the traditional dog is reddish pink, moist and more visually appealing.

3.    Garden Dogs don’t have the same texture as traditional hot dogs; the meat for Garden dogs is a little looser and the casing doesn’t have the longed-for “snap.” Traditional dogs, by contrast, have a lusher mouth-feel and a somewhat snappier bite because they use sheep and hog sausage casings.

Condiments play a key role with the Garden Dog, as they do with many other foods. If you have a hankering for sushi, you can assuage some of that urge by adding soy sauce and wasabi to Krab Stix or even canned tuna: the flavors will not, of course, be the same, but the condiments will push some of the same buttons. Having the traditional condiments in place makes it harder to discern that the Garden Dog is not, in fact, a traditional dog.

In his book “Eating Animals” (2009) Jonathan Safran Foer observes that sometimes when omnivores/carnivores hear talk of vegetarianism, they feel as though “their backs are against the wall.” There will be pushback against vegetable alternatives. I get it. I prefer traditional dogs, but there is not a gaping difference between traditional and Garden Dogs, and Garden Dogs provide personal and planetary health advantages.

Made with pea protein, Garden Dogs have the same amount of protein as traditional dogs, with less sodium and no nitrites, so that’s a plus. Caloric differences, however, are negligible: Garden Dog, 320 calories: traditional dog, 340 calories.

Portillo’s Garden Dog Photo: David Hammond

Beef is my favorite food, but we eat too much red meat in this country, and beef production requires vast quantities of water and land. So, for the sake of the planet, and the people who live on it, maybe we should try to eat a little less meat. It certainly won’t kill us to eat more vegetables, though it might if we don’t.

Anyway, I applaud the efforts of Portillo’s and their Garden Dog, just as I applaud Buona Beef for their Italian Beefless sandwich. We’re not yet fully accustomed to vegetables standing in for beef, but maybe, at least occasionally, we should try meat alternatives – many taste better than just “okay,” and they are definitely better for all of us.

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David Hammond

David Hammond, a corporate communications consultant and food journalist living in Oak Park, Illinois, is a founder and moderator of LTHForum.com, the 8,500 member Chicago-based culinary chat site. David...