By Jane and Michael Stern
Originally Published 1998 Gourmet Magazine
Can someone please help a man in distress? Charles Dowell, who first started working at Snappy Lunch on Main Street in 1943 at the age of fourteen and is now the chef and owner of what is today Mount Airy’s oldest eatery, sees himself headed toward dire straits. Everything is OK for the moment, but if his Tenderator goes on the blink he is going to be in big trouble…and so will all of us hungry customers who depend on Mr. Dowell to use that Tenderator to prepare pork chops for the Snappy Lunch pork chop sandwich.
“It can be done with a mallet,” says the veteran diner cook, never without a white apron tied at his waist and a skiff-shaped white paper Sanacap perched atop his head. He reaches deep into an unseen nook in his diminutive kitchen and pulls out a giant hammer with a heavy square head and a ridged face for tenderizing slabs of meat, inspecting the primitive tool with some disdain. “But I don’t like the way a mallet flattens the pork chop. I also have a $1,500 cuber at home for the job. But that squeezes the meat too much.”
To prove the superiority of his vintage Tenderator, which he discovered many years ago in an antiques shop, he takes a trimmed boneless pork chop just under an inch thick and slides it into the top of the small white enamel countertop machine. Shaped vaguely like a toaster, but with a slot at the bottom as well as on top, the Tenderator grabs the chop and silently pulls it in, then drops it out the bottom a few seconds later like a shredder would a piece of paper. At first glance, the chop that comes out appears unchanged from the chop that went in. But when Mr. Dowell folds the piece of meat, he reveals tiny parallel incisions, front and back, made by the machine’s whirring blades. To demonstrate just how tender the pork is, he pokes a finger clear through it, waving and wiggling his digit to show how easily he penetrated the meat. “You cannot do this with a pork chop that has been processed in a cuber or tenderized with a mallet,” he declares.
The problem: Tenderators are no longer made; parts are not available. “The health inspector said he thought this must be the first thing they took off the Ark!” Mr. Dowell jokes. He safeguards his prized appliance like a mother with a fragile child: No one else is ever allowed to use it. Though he has been able to perform small repairs over the years, the day a broken part cannot be rebuilt will be the end of the Snappy Lunch pork chop sandwich as we know it. And that would be a tragedy, for Mr. Dowell’s way with chops has no equal. To eat at his lunch counter is a priceless gastronomic experience. (Actual cost: $2.40 per sandwich.)
So if you happen to have a Tenderator in your attic, won’t you please call Charles Dowell and figure out a way he can assume possession of it? Snappy Lunch devotees from coast to coast will thank you.
It isn’t only an extremely supple section of tenderloin that makes the pork chop sandwich so good. There’s also the sweet-milk batter in which the chop is encased—a craggy tan envelope with a brittle crust. “This isn’t like ordering a case of hamburger patties you just throw on the grill,” Mr. Dowell explains as he watches one of his kitchen staff immerse a raw pork chop in the batter, then lay it gently alongside a dozen others at the back of the griddle in a shallow puddle of hot cooking oil. The cooked pork chop in its golden-crusted batter is very large—perhaps eight inches across—and, because each chop is individually “Tenderatorized” and has no uniform shape or thickness, there are some parts that are mostly meat with just a thin batter shell and others that are soft batter with just a ribbon of moist pork running through.
And how tender is this batter-fried pork chop? Charles Dowell says, “I have people come into Snappy Lunch with no teeth who can still eat my pork chop sandwich.”
Mr. Dowell says that pork chop sandwiches were popular in local restaurants when he was growing up in Mount Airy. The pork chops in those days, however, were breaded and fried with their bone still in. He recalls, “When you got that sandwich, you spent your time gnawing around the bone. You gnawed and you got maybe three good bites. One day after I came to Snappy Lunch, it hit me: I’ll just take that bone out. I ordered whole loins and told the butcher to keep the bone. But still, there was a problem: The boneless chops had tough parts, and the tough parts made them hard to eat. I watched customers tear at a chewy section of their sandwich—and sometimes I would see the chop slide right out of its bun! It was so embarrassing. That’s when I realized it had to be tenderized.”
Delicious as the pork chop is straight off the griddle, no one ever orders it plain at Snappy Lunch. Everybody gets it sandwiched inside a normal-sized burger bun (which it dwarfs), and nearly everybody gets it “all the way,” with five separate accompaniments. There’s a thick slice of tomato, chopped onion, and mustard—standard sandwich garniture. Then there are Charles Dowell’s chili and slaw.
“Chili is the little thing that turned out big,” Mr. Dowell says with a philosophic sense of amazement. “It was the chili that made the pork chop sandwich sky-rocket. When I first started serving pork chops, I had a tomato-based chili sauce that I put on them. But there were customers who teased me about that sauce. `This is not chili!’ they’d say. ‘It’s chili juice.’ And they were right. It was so thin, it ran straight off the chops. One day I took a little of everything that was on the grill—pork chops, ham, sausage, hamburger, tenderloin (eight different kinds of meat altogether)—and ran them all through the food processor with tomatoes.
The chili I got was thick, it was good, and it made all the difference.” The chili is layered in the sandwich with fine-cut cabbage slaw speckled with green peppers and onions. The total package is unwieldy in the extreme. Served at booths or at the counter in a wax-paper wrapper that acts as a catchall for fallen condiments, a Snappy Lunch pork chop sandwich requires two hands to hoist and eat. Dainty eaters use the plastic utensils provided to cut the sandwich in half, but even halved it is inevitably messy. It comes with no side dishes other than a bag of potato chips; and the beverage of choice is tea—iced and presweetened, of course.
Long before Charles Dowell invented his own version of the pork chop sandwich, Snappy Lunch was a narrow workingman’s lunch counter with no seats at all. Customers stood to eat their food, and when they were finished they threw napkins and sandwich wrappers on the floor. Adjacent to the restaurant was a shoe store. “When the shoemaker cranked up his machines, coffee mugs shimmied off the counter,” Mr. Dowell recalls. The original menu was little more than bologna sandwiches and “breaded hamburgers,” a Depressionera creation in which ground beef was extended by mixing it with an equal portion of moistened bread. After starting in his teens as a dishwasher and general cleanup man, then buying a half-interest in the business in 1951, Mr. Dowell yearned to add niceties to the food, such as lettuce and tomato on the sandwiches. But his partner was a hard case who would not suffer this sort of frippery.
In 1961, he bought out his partner, and one of his first actions as sole owner was to add lettuce and tomato to the kitchen’s larder. When the shoe store moved out in the mid-1960s, Snappy Lunch expanded, annexing the space to create another narrow dining area where a handful of little booths with school desk–size tables were lined up behind the counter. The restaurant still radiates the charm of a bygone day. When you dine at Snappy Lunch, you sit shoulder to shoulder with citizens of Mount Airy as well as with flocks of tourists. Most of the latter come to town to see where actor Andy Griffith grew up and the place that served as the real-life inspiration for the fictional town of Mayberry on his show. (Next door to Snappy Lunch, at Floyd’s City Barber Shop, seasoned haircutter Russell Hiatt boasts that he used to cut the young Andy’s hair. For $6, he or his niece Donna George will give you a magnificent flattop or a men’s “regular” haircut. It’s $2 extra for hair tonic or a shampoo.)
Much as we adore the pork chop sandwich for lunch, we also treasure breakfast time at Snappy Lunch, for that is when pans of big hot biscuits come out of the back oven, perfuming the whole place with their bready steam. Quickly brushed with butter while still hot, they are served with eggs or as sandwiches containing country ham, sausage, bacon, or sliced pork tenderloin. In the early morning, booths and counter are occupied almost exclusively by locals and the conversation is quintessential café banter. At a booth near ours one day about 6:15, an elderly gentleman was informing two younger men that the finest pair of shoes he ever owned were made by hand for him in 1940. The shoemaker measured him right there out on the sidewalk and charged him $6 for the pair. Now, he pays $79 for shoes, and they don’t fit nearly as well….
By midmorning, enthusiasts begin to crowd into Snappy Lunch. Charles Dowell’s explanation for the little restaurant’s huge popularity is the sandwich: “You could go all over town looking for a pork chop like this and never find one,” he says. We agree. The sandwich is unique, and it is magnificent. But it takes more than a glorified pork chop in a hamburger bun to generate the kind of allure radiated by this tiny diner on Main Street. Snappy Lunch serves each of its customers a generous helping of small-town America—and that is a tasty dish that’s getting mighty hard to find.