Even via email, Tom Portanova is cheerful. Bouncy, even. I envision him being like the guys who sling hot dogs at Cubs games, walking down the aisles with a portable steam cabinet strapped to their chest. They always look like the happiest guys, because what’s better than spending your days at the ballpark? But even without the big metal box, Portanova is the happiest guy in the hot dog-slinging game.
The hype surrounding gourmet food trucks may have waned, but the trucks themselves are still chugging along, because now there’s an actual culture of food trucks with a loyal following. It’s a way for young chefs to make a name for themselves and to try out an idea before investing in a brick-and-mortar operation. Inspired entrepreneurs such as Portanova are learning how to build their own businesses while surrounded by other similar endeavors.
Sin City Dogs has been the passion project for Portanova and his partners Jessica Thaeter and Ashley Hoff for the past year or so. After securing local vendors for his products, he got the all-too-typical runaround on a truck, but eventually he got connected with someone legit. He then consulted chefs Aaron Bryan and Bryan Fyler at the Cosmopolitan, where Portanova’s a bartender. And from there the work snowballed. “I always tell people, ‘It’s going to be much more than just a food truck, just wait and see.’ But for the moment, it’s Sin City Dogs on the Vegas streets.” He radiates so much energy that you can tell he’s an ideas guy, with enough drive to make things happen.
“I wanted to not only sell hot dogs,” he explains, “but to have custom spices and sauces that make the Sin City Dogs what they are.” And what they are is popular. Sin City Dogs debuted at the San Gennaro Feast last month, and officially opened for Punk Rock Bowling on Memorial Day weekend. Portanova says the response has been good, selling about 300 dogs each day at the festivals. And when lines get long, Portanova, Thaeter and Hoff hand out oranges. “It takes the edge off,” he says.
The biggest hit so far has been the BLVD, his take on the Sonoran hot dog, heaped high with refried beans, bacon, tomato, cheese, onion, mayo and salsa. It’s undoubtedly messy, but Portanova says that customers have been all over that bad boy. The buns come from local bakery Bon Breads, and the dogs themselves are all-beef quarter pounders. Two new dogs, the Bangkok (topped with diced onions, shredded carrots, crushed peanuts, cilantro and Thai peanut sauce) and the General Lee 2.0 (bacon-wrapped teriyaki dog with pineapple salsa, diced red onion, chopped cilantro and grilled jalapeño topped with teriyaki sauce), will be unveiled on July 23, a.k.a. National Hot Dog Day.
The devilish counterpart to Portanova’s dogs is the line of custom hot sauces: mustard barbecue, garlic habanero and the simply titled habanero extract. (“We should give a free shirt away or something if you go with that one,” Portanova muses. “That one’s hot.”) A couple of the sauces make appearances on the dogs, such as the Caribbean habanero, but they’re also out on the truck for you to doctor up your dog yourself. Hot-sauce collectors have been known to purchase them straight from Sin City Dogs.
When I asked Portanova if the sauces make Sin City Dogs stand out in an already crowded fleet of specialty food trucks, he doesn’t think of it that way. “There are so many great trucks out there, doing amazing things with new and creative spins on some of the classics. We do these things and we have a great time with our flavor profiles, but does it set us apart?” he ponders. “I think the personalities inside the truck and the different ways that the trucks connect with the people, these are the things that make the trucks different and unique. Just like there is always going to be room out there for new music, there’s always going to be room for new trucks.”
And now that Sin City Dogs has two festivals under its belt, Portanova feels good about his fledgling venture: “At the end of the day … we’re entertaining and serving up good food. Hopefully we can all leave with a few good stories to tell. I love it. It just makes me smile.” Spoken like the happiest guy in the business.