Back in 2004, Darrell’s took the blue ribbon in the first-ever Iowa Pork Producers Association tenderloin competition; and based on recent tastings, we can say with assurance that the kitchen has not lost its touch. This is one handsome hunk of pounded-tender pork, thick enough to be plenty juicy but also far wider than its bun, bound in a crunchy wave of crust with countless savory facets. Complemented by pickle chips and thick hoops of crisp white onion, it is an essential destination sandwich in a part of Iowa that is rich with excellent tenderloins.
There is a full menu of good-looking bar food, but you must save room for dessert. Rhubarb pie, made using stalks secured from customers’ patches, is peerless, piled into a master-class crust, its tantalizing sugar-tart filling balanced by the cascade of soft-serve vanilla ice cream that is its traditional garnish. It’s best in summer, but the proprietor gathers enough from his devoted customers that can freeze as much as he needs to offer rhubarb pie year-around.
We must tell you that Darrell’s Place is so devoid of visual charm that the void is itself charming. Looking less like a restaurant and more like a large shed where trucks and tractors get stored, there is no outside landscaping or architectural personality whatever; only a Coke sign with the restaurant name marks the building, which is surrounded by a flat, grey tarmac that serves as a parking lot. The interior is all beer advertising memorabilia and, of course, a TV above the bar.
Audubon County in western Iowa is serious Breaded Pork Tenderloin country, and that may be due in part to Darrell’s Place. This small diner in Hamlin won the 2004 Iowa Pork Producers Association Award for the Best BPT sandwich, and this spotlight most likely raised the stakes for area eateries. Darrell’s loin is thick-cut, not pounded to a height of a few millimeters like other competitors. The simple breading is light enough to lock in the pork’s natural juices, and the bun almost fits the substantial slab.
Locals who already know the fame of Darrell’s BPT are more likely to order other items, like a generous steak sandwich or hand-formed cheeseburgers. The popcorn chicken is undoubtedly a misnomer, for these gigantic knuckles of white meat resemble chicken nuggets on steroids. Serviceable French fries are available, but the onion straws have a crinkle-cut appearance that may appeal to newcomers. Don’t forget to order a frosty mug of 1919 Draft Root Beer, on tap at Darrell’s and many other locations throughout the Upper Midwest. Standing near the intersection of Highways 44 and 71 in Hamlin, Darrell’s Place is another sparkling jewel in the BPT crown of Audubon County.
Darrell’s Place is an easy place to miss even though it is located in a very small town. If it were not for the sign, it would be easy mistaking this restaurant for some other type of business and just drive by. Finding Darrell’s is well worth the effort.
In 2004, the Iowa Pork Producers Association proclaimed that Darrell’s Place had the best breaded pork tenderloin (BPT) in the state. No small accomplishment considering about half of the restaurants in the Hawkeye state serve this sandwich. For several months following the award, hundreds of people made the pilgrimage to Darrell’s to find out if this really was the best BPT. The traffic has died down a bit but people keep making the journey to try out this sandwich. It is hard to believe anyone would be disappointed.
Darrell hand cuts the pork loins himself and makes a very simple breading out of flour. The tenderloin is a bit thicker than the typical pork tenderloin sandwich and the breading is a little lighter and flakier than usually encountered. The sandwich at Darrell’s did earn the acclaim it received.
Darrell’s is off the beaten path but it is worth the drive. For travelers with a little extra time, consider doing the scenic drive on SR-44 starting around Lake Panorama.
(A little BPT background below)
The basic breaded pork tenderloin sandwich generally starts with a large cut of pork loin. The meat is tenderized until it is the desired thickness, usually 1/4-inch thick but sometimes up to 1/2-inch. The breading is customarily a simple mix of water, flour, salt, and pepper. Some places will add cornmeal or another special ingredient but the standard is to keep it simple. The sandwich is typically fried or deep-fried. The tenderloin is typically significantly bigger than the bun, which is most often a hamburger bun or sometimes a Kaiser roll. The condiments of choice are basic, usually pickles, often onions, and occasionally lettuce. In Indiana, expect mustard and/or mayonnaise while in Iowa it is usually mustard and/or ketchup. These sandwiches are very common in Iowa, Indiana, and parts of Illinois. Considering these are the among the top pork producing states, no big surprise. If you are looking for BIG, Joensy’s Restaurant in Solon purportedly has the biggest in Iowa.