Thursday morning I delivered my wife to the airport so she could fly to Washington DC to visit our granddaughter. I wasn't about to sit at home by myself so I decided one last pork tenderloin pursuit in the camper van was in order. My destination this time was west central Iowa since the 2007 Iowa Pork Producers Association best breaded tenderloin sandwich was awarded to Larsen's Pub in the Danish heritage town of Elk Horn. Incentive ran high in that nearby Darrell's Place in the tiny berg of Hamlin was a previous winner and BlizzardStormus here on Roadfood.com wished us road fooders would visit his Farmer's Kitchen in the seemingly metropolitan town of Atlantic (they have a Wal-Mart). I was on my way.
However, first stop was in northeast Iowa just across the Minnesota border but I will get to that later. I drove to Lake Anita State Park about 12 miles east of Atlantic to establish a beach head. This is the third Iowa state park that I have stayed in that was established on what is basically a reservoir with camping and picnicking but very little wilderness. Camping provisions are great and inexpensive. I might add it beats spending a night boondocking in a Wal-Mart parking lot.
Then I proceeded on to Atlantic and the Farmer's Kitchen. The Farmer's Kitchen is downtown. You can hear the Thursday night auction taking place a block away, "Who'll gimmie, who'll gimmie. . . sold!" in the background.
There I met Blizzardstormus and his mother. The Farmer's Kitchen received an honorable mention best breaded tenderloin sandwich in 2005 so naturally that is what I had. It was made from a six ounce pork loin and was very good. Blizzardstormus and I traded ideas in making it a 2008 winner.
I could not leave with trying his Mom's top selling home made pie. So I had the sour cream raisin. Mom admitted she did not like raisins but it was a top seller. I like raisins and could see immediately why on first bite it was a top seller.
I retired that night at the campground on a very full stomach and managed to sleep 10 hours under a full moon. There were only about a half dozen of us adventurous souls in a campground with about 180 campsites.
The next day for lunch I headed over to Elk Horn known for its Danish immigrant heritage. To kill the morning I stopped at the Danish windmill that originally built in Denmark in 1848, dismantled in 1975 and reassembled in Elk Horn in 1976.
When Larsen's Pub opened at 11 AM I walked down the street and entered. It was about a block away from the windmill on the main street right next to the town hall.
I plumped myself at the bar next to the award plaque and ordered their tenderloin. It was a very deserving tenderloin also cut from a pork loin of about 7 ounces. Was it the best? Admittedly slightly better than the Farmer's Kitchen but I would have to put last years winner, the Townhouse Supper Club, a tad above. I thought I would eat half of it and take out the other half for later but I ate the dang thing. OK, it was good.
I was now three tenderloins in, satisfied, and on my way home. I decided I would take the back roads through farm country and observe the fall harvest. Well, that put me smack dab just another 11 miles in Hamlin, nothing but a cross roads, and there was Darrell's Place in a yellow metal building wooing me.
Two lunches? I had to see the 2003 winner. I might never make it back. I caved and went in and sat at the bar counter. Little did I know that I sat down next to the owner, Jeff. He and his wife took over the restaurant from his parents last year. I still didn't know if I actually wanted a tenderloin or just maybe see one, or just maybe order one to go and stick in my refrigerator. Since I was there and talking to Jeff I ordered one. Luckily it was cut from a pork loin personally by Jeff at 4 ounces and not an eighth of an ounce over or under according to his trained eye. The sandwich was much more modest than the others (and less expensive) but was just as good. I got to talking so much I almost forgot to take a picture and was already two bites into it.
Thank heavens I didn't eat a breakfast. I thought I better get home before cardiac arrest. But danged if my GPS wasn't taking me right through Humboldt in north central Iowa. Yep, the 2007 second place winner, Rustix restaurant was there.
Again, I said to myself I might never make it back and the judges said it was a close second place finish. Against better judgment I stopped in about 4 PM too early for dinner. I was there so I ordered a Sierra Nevada Pale Ale and their tenderloin. It was a bit larger pork loin cut and was breaded with corn flakes. Rustix Restaurant was a bit more upscale than the other typical Iowan places I had been in. It was more typical of the kind of places I encountered in Indiana. Rustix fell victim to two faults I've had with places like that. Whoever prepped the pork loin did not know how to cut out the gristle even though it is so easy to do so. Secondly it was fried a tad greasy which is a trait when you try to serve a too large and too thick tenderloin. The taste was good.
I ate half and doggy bagged the remainder and definitely headed for home. This now brings me full circle to the beginning saving the first and best for last. There were 44 nominees for the 2007 contest. I noticed there were several past winners, runner ups and honorable mentions on the list but over the years, to my knowledge, there had never been any repeats. There are a lot of restaurants and diners serving breaded pork tenderloins in Iowa but I found it fascinating no restaurant could repeat with 5 chances each year to do so.
On my way down I detoured over to Mason City on an email recommendation from two different people - one local and current and one who moved away years ago. My thoughts were that this could be another Igloo (Peru, IL) or Mug'n'Bun (Speedway, IN) disappointment. The destination was a diner not on the list of 44 nominations. It was the Suzie-Q Cafe, a classic Valentine Diner built in 1948 in Wichita, KS and shipped to the site. The history of these diners can be found here and could be a roadfood pursuit to find the 40+ still in business. http://kshs.org/diners/index.htm
This diner was a tiny 10 stool diner in downtown Mason City.
Here is an interior 360 degree view. http://www.masoncitynet.com/virtual_tours/news/suzieq/
Now about that tenderloin. It wasn't breaded. It was battered in a peppery batter and maybe that was not why it was on the "breaded" pork tenderloin sandwich nomination list. Who knows? Suzie-Q Cafe has had several owners over the years and was taken over by Troy Levenhagen and family last year. Troy is also known as Levey the Great and is a magician for hire. Let's say his tenderloin is magic but it really is a recipe he took over called Spic'n'Span. Spic'n'Span? I forgot to ask. But there is something magical about this tenderloin. It tasted absolutely great and if you want a unique experience in sandwich tasting this definitely is the one.
All in all, I drove over 900 miles in two days on this pursuit all on the back roads mostly in Iowa. Iowa is farm country all the way to its four borders. It is mainly corn and hogs. Combines were busy in the fields. Tractors and loaders slowed me down on several roads. Trucks were busy hauling corn to full grain elevators in tiny bergs about every 6 miles. It was bustling and it was satisfying to see the hard workers everywhere including the patrons in all the restaurants I stopped in. God, it was pure Americana. Iowans should be proud.