The tenderloin is one of America’s great regional sandwiches; historians believe it was invented here in Huntington, Indiana. The story is that Nick Frienstein started frying breaded pork cutlets in 1904 to sell in sandwiches from a street cart in town; four years later he opened a small café called Nick’s Kitchen. His method of preparing the fried pork cutlets was finessed one winter shortly after Nick moved to the café and his brother Jake suffered such severe frostbite that he lost the fingers off his hands. Jake, whose job it was to bread the slices of pork, found that his stumps made good tools for pounding the meat to make it tender. Since then, a tenderloin (no need to say pork tenderloin) has been defined as a sandwich of pork that has been either beaten tender (with a wooden hammer) or run through a mechanical tenderizer (or both).
Nick’s Kitchen is now run by Jean Anne Bailey, whose father owned the town café starting in 1969. The tenderloin here is definitive: a colossal sandwich built around a wavy disk of audibly crunchy pork that extends a good two to three inches beyond the circumference of a five-inch bun, virtually eclipsing its plate. Soaked in buttermilk that gives a tangy twist to the meat’s sweetness and tightly cased 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.
Nick’s Kitchen isn’t only a tenderloin stop. It’s a wonderful three-meal-a-day town café with big breakfasts and a noontime blackboard of daily specials. We’ve loved just about every lunch we’ve eaten here, and we are bowled over by Jean Anne’s pies. Made using a hand-me-down dough recipe that incorporates a bit of corn syrup, the fruit pies have a flaky crust that evaporates on the tongue, melding with brilliant-flavored rhubarb or black raspberries. Butterscotch pie – which she learned to cook from her grandmother – is more buttery than sweet, nothing at all like cloying pies made from pudding filling. Sugar-cream pie, an Indiana signature dessert, is like cream candy in a savory crust. Heavenly!