By Jane and Michael Stern
Originally Published 2003 Gourmet Magazine
In the heart of the heartland, between Nebraska’s Midlands and the Wabash River Valley in Indiana, a tenderloin is not just a cut of meat. It is a very important sandwich. When you ask for one in a café, drive-in, or diner, you can expect to get a slice of boneless pork loin that has been pounded flat, breaded, fried to a crisp, and planted in a bun (and, one hopes, dressed with mustard, pickles, lettuce, and tomato).
The girth of the meat in a tenderloin ranges from generous, protruding maybe an inch past the circumference of the bun, to freakishly wide. In the latter category, you’ll find tenderloins in which a plate-size pancake of pork extends so far beyond the bun that it’s impossible to pick it up like a normal sandwich.
Historians believe that the first true tenderloin was served to the public just southwest of Fort Wayne, Indiana, in Huntington (home of Dan Quayle). In 1904, Nick Frienstein started frying breaded pork cutlets to sell in sandwiches from a street cart in town; four years later, he opened Nick’s Kitchen. One winter, shortly after Nick moved to the café, the method of preparation was changed when his brother Jake suffered such severe frostbite that he lost his fingers. Jake, whose job it was to bread the slices of pork, found that his stumps made good tools for tenderizing the meat. Since then, all tenderloins are either beaten tender (with a wooden hammer) or run through a mechanical tenderizer or both.
As is true of other emblematic regional passions—chicken-fried steak in the Southwest and chowder on the Oregon coast—there are way too many substandard versions of this celebrated sandwich. The hapless hungry traveler is likely to find himself at a truck-stop counter facing a desiccated, Frisbee-flat tenderloin and wondering how such a sorry thing could inspire any eater’s enthusiasm. The easy answer is to taste a good one—one with crunch to its crust and a glistening white ribbon of sweet pork inside.
Where is the best place to eat a tenderloin? Central Iowa is prime territory—we especially like Smitty’s of Des Moines—and so is downstate Illinois, where long ago we had memorable superwide ones at a Mississippi River café near the grave of circus star Norma Jean (an elephant killed by lightning). But for the biggest and most handsome tenderloins, the Hoosier State is the place to go. Indianans are fanatical about them; in many town cafés, they are more popular than hamburgers.
Nick’s Kitchen is now run by Jean Anne Bailey, whose father bought the town café in 1969. Its tenderloin is listed on the menu with a challenge that’s cruelly ironic, considering its culinary history: “Bet You Need Both Hands.” In fact, two hands are barely adequate for hoisting the colossal sandwich, which is built around a wavy disk of audibly crunchy pork that extends a good two to three inches beyond the five-inch bun and virtually eclipses the plate. Soaked in buttermilk, which gives a tangy twist to the meat’s sweetness, and tightly encased in a coat of rugged cracker crumbs (not the more typical fine-grind cracker meal), the lode of pork inside the crust fairly drips with moisture. Bailey tells us she buys the meat already cut and cubed. She pounds it, marinates it, breads it, and fries it.
(We must offer an aside to alert you to the pies at Nick’s. “My father served frozen ones,” Bailey says. “I knew I wanted something better.” Made using a hand-me-down dough recipe that incorporates a bit of corn syrup, her fruit pies have a flaky crust that evaporates on the tongue as it melds with brilliant-flavored rhubarb or black raspberries; the butterscotch pie—which her grandmother taught her to cook—is more buttery than sweet, nothing at all like those cloying pies with pudding filling. And we won’t even get into the hot apple dumpling …)
Dave Clapp pooh-poohs the overwide tenderloin. Proprietor of Mr. Dave’s, a North Manchester pork palace, from 1962 until his son Kevin took over five years ago, Clapp believes a good tenderloin should be only a little bit bigger than its bun. “I don’t want an elephant ear,” he says. “I want one that’s thick with plenty of juice, so you can taste that pork.” The man is a pork fanatic, two-time finalist for the National Pork Restaurant of the Year award, and he still comes in to cut the meat. It is a beautiful thing to watch him effortlessly transform a yard-long boneless loin into 20 cutlets from which he slices nearly every bit of fat (the trimmings are used to make sausage).
When you walk into Mr. Dave’s, you will likely hear the methodical thud of a wooden hammer in the kitchen: cornmeal being pounded into the cutlets, one by one. After being breaded, they are chilled for a few hours, then cooked to order. Mr. Dave’s used to do a brisk mail-order business selling breaded, frozen, and ready-to-fry tenderloins to homesick Hoosiers in tenderloin-free parts of the world until the state Board of Animal Health said the pork couldn’t be shipped without federal inspection.
Brown County, south of Indianapolis, has long appealed to artists who come to render its bucolic wooded landscapes, as well as to foodies who know it as one of the few places anywhere in the country blessed with persimmon trees that bear fruit in the fall. Here, in Gnaw Bone (where roadside stands sell persimmon pudding by the square during leaf season), we found an enchanting place to eat tenderloins: the back room of a Marathon service station. Formerly known as Brown County Tack and Snack but now cleared of equestrian gear, Gnaw Bone Food & Fuel is a gas station, convenience store, and live-bait shop. Beyond the shelves of sundries is a large storage room set up for indoor dining, with picnic tables covered by green checkered oilcloth. The tables are surrounded by plastic bins of odd-lot bargain merchandise for sale, including souvenir T-shirts from North Carolina and three-dollar audio CDs.
Chef-owner Beni Clevenger credits the success of his outsize tenderloin to the fact that he cooks it in a Broaster. More commonly used to make chicken, a Broaster deep-fries food under pressure. “My tenderloin cooks from the inside out,” Clevenger explains. “That keeps the pork plenty moist while the crust crisps up like the devil.” He says he buys his meat just like anyone else here—already cubed from the local IGA. “The less you mess with it, the better it will be,” he says. “Nice and easy is the way to go. Don’t fuss; don’t be pounding the life out of it, don’t flap it around while it cooks. Start with good meat and treat it gentle. That’s the Gnaw Bone way to cook.”
Gnaw Bone Food & Fuel