from today's Chicago Tribune:
Love me, tenderloin
It's Iowa's version of a delicacy: the breaded pork tenderloin. Three Hawkeye State transplants tell you why it is a sandwich like no other--and where to find it here.
Mike Conklin, Jon Yates and Reid Hanley
Tribune staff reporters
Published October 13, 2005
SOME PEOPLE--MAYBE EVEN GERTRUDE STEIN, WERE she still with us--will tell you that a breaded pork tenderloin is a breaded pork tenderloin is a breaded pork tenderloin.
They are not from Iowa.
A breaded pork tenderloin--done up as a sandwich--is the epitome of a classic Iowa dish.
How do we know this? When the subject came up the other day and we mentioned a few favorite BPTs we'd enjoyed--a schnitzel here, a milanesa there, a tonkatsu one supper several years ago--a trio of former Iowans (OK, so maybe you're never a former Iowan) complained loudly.
And they complained that it's tough to find a truly authentic Iowa-style breaded pork tenderloin sandwich without crossing the Mississippi River.
That was all that At Play needed to hear. So what did we do? We asked that trio of Tribune reporters--Mike Conklin, Jon Yates and Reid Hanley--to find a breaded pork tenderloin sandwich that fulfilled their Iowa dreams.
Here's their slightly edited, grease-stained report.
MIKE: Does it seem like breaded pork tenderloins are a bigger delicacy in Iowa than elsewhere, or is that my imagination?
JON: Sadly, I think you're right. When I was growing up, tenderloin sandwiches practically fell off every passing pig. And there were plenty of pigs in Iowa. Here, you have to send a search team just to find a decent tenderloin. I think there are simply more pigs in Iowa. But I could be wrong.
REID: I am no world traveler, but Iowa seems to be the ONLY place where you can get a breaded, fried pork tenderloin. I remember as a high school senior taking a trip to Wisconsin and ordering a tenderloin sandwich only to find it was a steak sandwich! How disappointing. I remember someone saying there was a law against serving a pork tenderloin in Wis-consin. They have obviously seen the error of their ways now with Culver's--which aren't exactly Iowa quality but are still tasty.
Maybe it's a nostalgic thing, but a pork tenderloin is still my No. 1 choice for a sandwich. Burgers are always good and so is Italian beef or sausage. But they aren't tenderloins.
MIKE: When I've found them in Chicago, a lot of them seemed to be like they came from a cookie-cutter. Too round. I don't remember them ever being perfectly round. Sometimes there might even be a little sliver that was kind of an extension, like a peninsula off the mainland.
So, what make a perfect Iowa pork tenderloin?
JON: For me, the perfect tenderloin is roughly twice the circumference of the bun. Or larger. If you're full before you even hit the bun, that's good. The tenderloin should be thin and crispy, and pounded into a shape that's round-like, but not perfectly round. Perfectly round suggests manufacturing. Tenderloins should not be manufactured.
REID: I'm a flavor guy. I love the taste. It should be bigger than the bun--which should be toasted--but not so big that you can't eat and drive at the same time. (I'm sure that's a flashback to the Lisbon [Iowa] A&W.) There should be a hint of seasoning--just salt and pepper. I have mine with just ketchup. Don't really like much elsemore stuff would kill the taste.
MIKE: Ketchup and dill pickles, no more, no less. I can live without the pickles, but ketchup is a necessity. Back in the old days, when my stomach was stronger and it took a hand grenade under my bed to wake me up, I liked a little raw onion, too.
JON: No true pork tenderloin has grilled onions. They have to be raw. I went to Culver's and, though the tenderloin itself is better than I expected (though barely larger than the bun), it came with grilled onions. I should have sent it back.
REID: My theory on how to eat them is to eat around, moving towards the bun. Once you get to the bun, you also get to the condiments! Splitting the giant tenderloin is not a bad idea, especially if you get it to go. And ask for an extra bun. It's like getting two for one.
MIKE: I worked one summer at that A&W in Lisbon. One of my jobs was to take this meat cleaver and pound those tenderloins until they looked like crepes. I don't think you can discount the breading. That was the best part, to me. I can remember it being thicker than the meat.
JON: TOO LARGE??!?!? Never. No such thing. I see your point about them being toooooo thin. I don't want to eat just breading either. But fried breading is never a bad thing.
And Joensys in Solon, Iowa, to me is Mecca for the tenderloin enthusiast.
MIKE: Joensys owner Biran Joens says he sells about 600 breaded pork tenderloin sandwiches a week. He attributes their popularity to the fact Iowans prefer plain, simple food and stick with something they like. Forever. It also helps that the University of Iowa is only a few miles away and the sandwiches have become a novelty of sorts for students.
REID: Finding a tenderloin in the Chicago area means two things: Culver's and blind luck. Tenderloins are so rare around here you have to stumble on them. There are so many hot dogs, burgers, Italian beef and sausage and chicken sandwiches there doesn't seem like there is room on the menu for them. Pity.
MIKE: One thing I've noticed about breaded pork tenderloin sandwiches here: It seemed like the farther I got from the Loop, the sandwiches got better. Maybe it's because you get closer to Iowa. The best sandwiches seemed to be off the beaten path.
I also noticed that the restaurants don't seem too anxious to say they're breaded. I found a perfectly fine sandwich at the Silo in Lake Bluff, but you had to read the menu's fine print to learn it was breaded. Who wants a tenderloin without the breading?
REID: Breading is a key. Not too much, though. My tenderloin at the Machine Shed in Rockford seemed to be battered. It was tasty, however. Wish I could find one in DuPage County
MIKE: Actually, some of those breaded pork tenderloins we used to sell at that A&W had more breading than pork, kind of like a shell that encased the meat.
JON: I still say the best tenderloin I ever had was at the deli in the Hy Vee grocery store where I worked. I spent six years as a stockboy/bagger/checker/produce guy and ate almost nightly at the deli. They kept their tenderloins behind a glass counter, and I could choose which one I wanted them to cook. I always chose the largest one. It was big and thick and juicy--yes, actually juicy (though I suspect the juice might have been at least partially made up of grease). I had it with lettuce, tomato, onion and mayonnaise. Damn good. I can still taste it. It was worth however many years all those tenderloins took off my life.
REID: I think the appeal, the passion is a regional pride thing that brings you back to your childhood. I can't imagine an Iowa kid who hasn't eaten a tenderloin at the local drive-in or tavern.
MIKE: Hey, when I eat a breaded pork tenderloin sandwich, it's not just food. It's a memory. I can't help but think of the old drive-in restaurant--with car hops--where I worked and ate. Every drive-in in every town seemed to advertise "Iowa's largest tenderloin," but I just knew we had the biggest. It was a matter of local pride in our tiny community, and who cared how they tasted? Just pile on the pickles and ketchup. Size mattered.
JON: Non-Iowans often don't understand the appeal of tenderloins because they've probably never had a truly good one. And they certainly haven't grown up in a tenderloin culture. We Iowans love our pigs, and we love our small-town diners. The tenderloin is the quintessential intersection of the two. It's a point of pride which diner sells the largest tenderloin. Why? Because Iowans don't go for ritzy, expensive entrees where the plate is huge and the food tiny. We like things the other way around. We fail to see why anyone wouldn't. Flavor? Who needs it. Not that tenderloins don't taste good. They do. The breading has to be just right, and the pork itself should be thick enough to be juicy. But we don't need our food all gussied up. Anything on a bun will do. If it's pork, all the better.
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A few bites of pork
So how did the Iowa boys fare in their search? Here's a rundown of the breaded pork tenderloin sandwiches they consumed and a rating.
Oink rating: 1 oink, "Order the burger"; 2 oinks, "I was hungry"; 3 oinks, "OK . . . for Illinois"; 4 oinks, "Gosh, almost makes me forget the hills of Dubuque"; 5 oinks, "Closest thing to (Iowa) heaven."
625 Rockland Rd., Lake Bluff 847-234-6660
The goods: This place is known for its pizza, but, of all the places I visited in the Chicago area, it comes closest to those serving an Iowa-style breaded pork tenderloin, the kind I recall eating in the Hawkeye state. The meat had more than enough "bun overlap" and--just as important to me--the breading was nice and crunchy. The fries that came with it were fine, but who could finish them after eating all of this sandwich?
Rating: 5 oinks
-- Mike Conklin
2819 4th St., Peru 815-223-0848
The goods: Sure, there are other things on the menu, but the Igloo makes it quite clear the tenderloin rules in this small-town diner. It's the first thing listed on the menu--and it's darn good. It's not the biggest tenderloin around, but it's large enough to peek out from beneath the bun, with a crispy breading that provides the right amount of crunch. Served with your choice of condiments (raw onions of course), it's about as close to Iowa as you can get so close to Chicago. And for those of you who think the sandwich is too small, never fear: The Igloo also offers a version with two tenderloins.
Price: $3.05 for a single; $5.35 for a double.
Rating: 4 oinks
-- Jon Yates
5420 S. U.S. Highway 14, Harvard 815-943-7558
The goods: Here's a real old-fashioned, small-town restaurant, where townsfolk gather to talk as much as eat. The breaded pork tenderloin I ate was helped by this atmosphere. At least the meat was thick and tasty, but the breading was a little too thin for my taste. The cook made up for this by doing a nice job toasting the bun, which provided extra crunch. My biggest concern: Why was Kelley's offering listed under "specialty sandwiches" instead of "traditional sandwiches"? What's more traditional than breaded pork tenderloin?
Price: $4.95; $5.95 (deluxe with salad)
Rating: 4 oinks
Illinois Hwy. 47 and Main Street, Elburn 630-365-2200
The goods: This was a pleasant surprise. I had driven past this spot a number of times and didn't have a clue they had a tenderloin. Mine was pretty tasty with a nice breading. It was big, and the bun was pretty much dwarfed. There was an extra piece that I ate sans bun. This was a real tenderloin, not some formed patty. It was a little overcooked, but there was still some juiciness to it. It was pretty close to what I was hoping for, considering which side of the Mississippi I was on. I wouldn't hesitate to stop again.
Price: $5.95 (with fries and side)
Rating: 3 1/2 oinks
-- Reid Hanley
Locations around Chicagoland
The goods: Culver's doesn't exactly promote its pork tenderloin sandwich. All the love goes to ButterBurgers and frozen custard. But for tenderloin lovers, the fast-food restaurant provides a quick fix--and a surprisingly good facsimile of the Iowa original. Juicy with a light, flaky breading, Culver's version is flavorful but not overpowering. The sandwich is a bit too round--clearly it was not hand-pounded. It's also a tad small. But it is difficult to beat the convenience (Culver's restaurants seem to be sprouting up everywhere), and for fast food, you could do a heck of a lot worse.
Price: $3.89 for the sandwich, $6.09 for a basket (with drink and fries).
Rating: 3 oinks
Machine Shed Restaurant
7475 E. State St., Rockford 815-229-3276
The goods: The Machine Shed restaurants in Iowa, Illinois and Wisconsin have a pork tenderloin sandwich highlighting their lunch menus. "Our most popular sandwich. Not your ordinary pork T!" Well, there is no such thing as "ordinary" when it comes to pork tenderloin. This one is battered not breaded, which is a bit curious since the Machine Shed chain started in Davenport in 1978. It was big and juicy, and the batter factor was an interesting twist.Nice oversized bun but the meat overflowed, just like you want. The platter is a buck more, but you get fries and either a cup of soup or a side of coleslaw and cottage cheese. A lot of food.
Price: $5.99 for the sandwich; $6.99 for the platter.
Rating: 3 oinks
160 N. LaSalle St. 312-357-2700
The goods: If you're looking for an Iowa-style breaded pork tenderloin in a convenient Loop location, you're going to have a problem with this otherwise fine restaurant. There were two breaded pork tenderloin offerings on the menu. But after thinking I had it straight with the waitress, I was brought two layers of breaded pork in an open-faced sandwich--smothered in mashed potatoes and gravy. My veins started clogging just looking at it. Tasty, but even I couldn't finish it. I'll go back some other day for the other sandwich on the menu.
Price: $8.95 (includes soup or salad)
Rating: 2 oinks
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Our tenderloin team
Mike Conklin, Tempo reporter, spent a summer making "Iowa's largest" breaded pork tenderloin sandwiches in his hometown at the A&W drive-in in Lisbon. He preferred eating them.
Reid Hanley, sports reporter, though born in Chicago, calls Mt. Vernon, Iowa, his hometown. He has been eating pork tenderloins for decades.
Jon Yates, a general assignment reporter, was born in Ames, Iowa, home to the Iowa Pork Industry Center, the Pork Profit Network, and all manner of swine.