Road Trip – Pork Tenderloin Sandwich
Our first road trip takes us to the state of Iowa for a classic local sandwich – oink!
Tim Hanson (great friend, Wildwood guest, cigar aficianado and wheelman) and Patrick Neary (Wildwood owner in need of a couple of mindless days in my old stomping grounds).
Visit 8-10 restaurants throughout Iowa to find our favorite breaded pork tenderloin sandwich. Our sites were selected from Iowa Pork Producer’s Association (IPPA) annual contest winners, internet research and personal knowledge (I grew up in Iowa and love the sandwich.) We split our sites into three groups – Southwestern Iowa, Central Iowa and Eastern Iowa – and Tim drove about 1,000 miles over the three days to cover the territory.
Winner to be based on the quality, freshness and presentation of the pork, breading, bun, accompaniments and side dishes. We added a few extra points for ambience – could we see ourselves hanging out there for a good time?
- Jonesy’s Restaurant – Solon, Iowa (Claims to Be Iowa’s Largest Tenderloin)
- The Angle Inn – Walford, Iowa (2009 IPPA Honorable Mention)
- The Augusta Restaurant - Oxford, Iowa (2008 IPPA State Champion)
- Corner Station – Templeton, Iowa (2009 IPPA Honorable Mention)
- Darrell’s Place – Hamlin, Iowa (2003 IPPA State Champion)
- Larsen’s Pub – Elk Horn, Iowa (2007 IPPA State Champion)
- Goldie’s Ice Cream Shoppe - Prarie City, Iowa (2009 IPPA State Champion)
- B&B Grocery – Des Moines, Iowa (Des Moines Best Sandwich and Best Tenderloin Winner)
- Maddie’s Again – West Des Moines, Iowa (an unscheduled stop recommended by a local bartender)
Pork – A lot of differences here. Some restaurants appear to be a lot more hands on in selecting and cutting the loins. There are a couple schools of thought in style.
One approach is to pound the tenderloin into submission … resulting in a thin tenderloin two to three times the size of the bun. This appears to be the favorite on the eastern side of the state. A second style is a much thicker cut (only slightly larger than the bun) run through a tenderizer. This looks to be the favorite on the western side of the state.
Breading – A lot of the secrecy seems to be around the ingredients and seasoning for the breading and how it is applied. Most tenderloins are double dipped in egg and then flour (or is it the other way round)? Some breading had more of a meal texture. The Augusta uses Japanese bread crumbs, a very tasty touch, but a bit untraditional. The were many variations in the nature and quantity of spices, particularly the amount of pepper. We like the loins that do not separate from the breading – for sure there is a chef’s trick or two here. We also saw a couple of tenderloins come from the freezer – shame on you!
Bun - Most were just a straightforward small hamburger bun – purposely much smaller than the tenderloin. We’re not complaining – it’s not supposed to be about the bread! But a homemade roll (The Augusta) or a toasted bun (Maddy’s Again) make it just that much better!
Accompaniments – The purists will say this is a sandwich which should be served only with pickles and onions and, if you like, yellow mustard. We preferred red onions, and homemade pickles were an extra treat. I’ll save my preference for fresh ground horseradish for Wildwood.
Sides – Nothing too exciting here – mainly a variety of creamy or vinegary coleslaws, choice of deep fried potatoes or vegetables and, in one case, homemade sweet potato chips. Who needs sides with these mammoth sandwiches, anyway?
Ambience – The small town bars were our favorites! Old school – no microbrews here! We expect they are wall to wall with patrons on the weekend. We were joined by my Mom & Dad for lunch at Darrell’s Place (about 3 miles from their home), their favorite restaurant, to catch up a little and get the local flavor. When was the last time you saw Hamm’s (my father) and PBR (me) on the same table?
We loved talking to the restaurant owners and managers, most willing to share at least a few (not all) of their secrets. We want to go back to the Angle Inn on a weekend night – Connie, the owner, promised it would be hopping! She gave us some wooden (and leather) nickels to commemorate our visit. Who knows, we might find someone for Tim to sing a duet with on kareokee night!
This was a tough call! … and, ultimately, we chose to have winners in two categories – the best upscale tenderloin and the best traditional tenderloin.
The Augusta was the clear winner on taking the pork tenderloin sandwich to a new level – tender (not tenderized) pork loin (medium height, 2+ times the size of the bun),well seasoned Japanese bread crumb breading, homemade bun, red onions and homemade pickle accompanied by homemade sweet potato chips. This is a gem in Oxford, Iowa, just off of Interstate 80. We’ll stop by for lunch or dinner everytime we’re in the area, not only for the pork tenderloin, but the New Orleans influenced cuisine including the seafood gumbo, crayfish beignets, po-boy sandwiches, grits, creamed corn, etc. This is a great dining experience by any standard and the ambience matches the cuisine (comfortable and eclectic).
But make no mistake about it, the Augusta is not the traditional small town Iowa folksy bar or diner that lives primarily off of its breaded pork tenderloin sandwich, leaving more advanced culinary creations to others. You have to love a cinder block or aluminum building thrown on top of a concrete pad and chocked full of local residents and farmers.
So where is the real Iowa pork tenderloin experience? We’ll give an unqualified thumbs up to the “Tenderloin Triangle” in western Iowa -The Corner Station, Templeton (pop. 650), Darrell’s Place, Hamlin (pop. 250 ) and Larsen’s Pub, Elk Horn (pop. 650). A thirty mile drive let’s you experience all three. All thick, tenderized, double breaded tenderloins, with white onions and dill pickles on an untoasted small hamburger bun. (On a future visit, we’ll lobby for a toasted bun and red onions.)
You’ll have to look for the Corner Station on Highway 71 just outside Templeton – the signage is not very clear. We’d stop for gas and a tenderloin everytime we drive by! The breading was just a little lighter than the other two places in the area and browned perfectly. The owner and staff could not have been friendlier! The only reservation here - no bar! So a fill-up and a quick tasty lunch are in order here.
Darrell’s Place in Hamlin is a little easier to find these days. It used to be hidden behind a car salvage yard and only the locals knew where it was. The salvage yard is gone and Darrell’s is in clear sight. You can find diners from 30 miles away every day and on many days somebody will make the trek from Des Moines or Omaha. I have to confess I have been eating here for years and I often wondered how their tenderloin stacked up to other Iowa hotspots. I can sleep at night now, knowing this is a great, very consistent tenderloin – as good as they get. The waitresses are outstanding and the beer is ice cold! I can also get to my parent’s house for a nap after two of these bad boy tenderloins for lunch - a nice side benefit. I tried three once, but this is not recommended!
We found little difference in the tenderloins between Darrell’s Place and Larsen’s Pub in Elk Horn. On a future visit, we’ll do a side by side tasting to see if we can differentiate the two a little more. Larsen’s Pub is a little smaller and cozier location, where you can see yourself sitting at the bar for awhile. Tim had a great conversation with the owner/bartender/server about small town eight man football. There is some restaurant sense of humor here, with signs posted above the bar which you can experience for yourself.
Places We Went - Maytag Dairy Farms in Newton, Iowa (the best blue cheese anywhere), Tasty Tacos in East Des Moines, Iowa (a great soft shell taco and haunt from my college days at Drake University), Splash (a first time visit to a great seafood restaurant) in Des Moines, and a quick drive through the Amana Colonies just outside of Iowa City.
Places to Go Back (we’ll first check to make sure they are open) – Iowa Baseball Hall of Fame in Norway, Iowa (featured in The Perfect Game), Templeton Rye Distillery in Templeton, Iowa, and Cedar Ridge Distillery in Swisher, Iowa. Can you tell that Tim likes bourbon?
Probably eating so many breaded pork tenderloins in three days is a little over the top (at least my physician would think so). We would have liked to try more places, but even our big appetites were waining toward the end. So next time we’ll sample a little more and eat a little less …at least that’s our story right now.
On the other hand, we might have to check out a new development in the tenderloin trade … a breaded pork tenderloin topped with a cheeseburger! Is that a Tenderburger or a Hamburloin? Can you say heart attack?
We’ll also take more pictures next time – maybe see if we can coerce a photographer to accompany us! But for now check out our picture gallery with some of our photos and some grabbed from the web.
Wildwood Lunch Special
Watch for our Iowa Pork Tenderloin sandwich special, coming soon!
If you really want to immerse yourself in the culture of Iowa Pork tenderloins, we recommend the Des Loines website.
What do you think? Any spots you think we missed? Different points of view?