DOWNTOWN — A South Side man’s tale had all the makings of a great love story: Youthful passion, separation and now, after a decade of waiting, a joyful reunion.
The only thing that’s a little off-kilter is he was in love with a cake.
Portillo’s lemon cake, to be exact.
Ben, who grew up in West Lawn, first tried the cake while a kid going to Portillo’s with his dad. The two are no fans of chocolate and would drive 30-40 minutes to the Portillo’s at least one a month for the treat. It became a special event for the two, and Ben even ended up hosting his high school graduation party at Portillo’s — with a lemon cake.
“I fell in love with the lemon cake absolutely from the first time I saw it,” Ben said, laughing.
But a little less than a decade ago Portillo’s stopped serving the cake. Ben tried for years to find one that tasted similar and, even though he’s no baker, he turned to his own kitchen tried at least 20 recipes in hopes of finding one that could mimic the lemon cake. Recipe after recipe failed to hold up.
That’s when Ben grew desperate enough to offer a bounty on the internet: $300 for the recipe or a copycat cake, plus $30 if you could find out why the cake went missing from the restaurants. (He thought $300 was “absolutely worth it,” he said, and wanted to make sure the bounty was high enough that it’d get people searching for a recipe.)
“I’m a guy, but [I] would consider birthing a child for lemon cake,” Ben wrote in a post on Reddit where he advertised the bounty. Ben asked that his last name not be used since he wants his Reddit account to be private.
Luckily for him, Portillo’s stepped in, offering to “make your dream come true” by giving Ben a lemon cake and telling him how to make it.
“We were really, really happy that he still has a fond memory of the lemon cake” and such a “passion that he’d [pay] $300 to have a piece of that cake,” said Portillo’s spokesman Marc Trevino, who said the cake has been gone for about a decade.
Now, Ben and other fans are pushing the hot dog chain to bring back “one of the finest lemon desserts of our time,” with an online petition to bring back the “fabled” lemon cake garnering 20 signatures so far.
Ben originally wrote he had been searching for the cake for years and hounding Portillo’s employees about when — if ever — it would return. He even had someone ask Dick Portillo about the cake at a grand opening event, Ben wrote.
The absence of the cake was hard: The dessert had been something Ben shared with his dad, he said, and it’s not easy to come across lemon desserts that get things just right.
“Ever since I was little, [we’d go] out there and we’d do it. It was a thing that it was just sort of us two,” Ben said. “The cake itself is just fantastic. … Lemon is a very tough flavor to get right.” Later, he added: “Being a lemon lover is very hard. It’s not like being a chocolate lover where you can find it anywhere.”
Ben ate “countless” lemon desserts at eateries around the country over the years, he said, and tried at least 20 recipes for lemon cake. None were as magical as what Portillo’s once served.
“So many cakes and frosting batches,” Ben wrote on Reddit. “The closest I’ve come … to the frosting [is] using an eggless chocolate mousse recipe I modified with lemon curd. At this point if I found out the secret ingredient was Dick Portillo’s [sweat] I would be first in line with a squeegee.”
Ben’s post on Reddit went viral and garnered hundreds of responses, with some offering to help him find the recipe or double the bounty money. Others, unable to help, stepped in to wax poetic about Portillo’s.
Hundreds have even privately messaged Ben, asking him to secretly share Portillo’s recipe with them if the restaurant chain won’t release it publicly, Ben said.
“I miss Portillo’s so much, so often, so sincerely,” said one sad Chicagoan who has moved to Seattle.
“I had this like twice a decade ago and completely forgot it existed,” another chimed in. “You just gave me a nostalgia wave like when someone showed me the Sears air conditioner commercial again.”
Portillo’s learned of the bounty and offered Ben a lemon cake and recipe. The restaurant told Ben he could choose the time and place he wanted the dessert, he said.
He’s planning to head home to Chicago — he had to move to Phoenix a few years back — so he can enjoy the lemon cake with his dad.
Portillo’s explained it had given up on the cakes because the frosting would make the cake layers slide. The structure of the cakes was “often compromised” by the end of the day, Portillo’s wrote on Reddit.
“It would taste great but not always look as great,” Trevino said. He’s never had the cake, but his coworkers were talking “very fondly” of it just the day before they saw their fan’s post.
Will you be able to grab a slice anytime soon? There aren’t any immediate plans to bring it back, Trevino said, but it’s not necessarily gone for good.
“We can always leave the door open for something like that, especially since we see how passionate people are …,” Trevino said. “If it’s something that people want … you never know.”