There is a lot of nowhere in indiana. I know this. I’ve seen it, grown up in it, lived in it. And right now my wife Michelle and I are poised at its edge, in search of the best breaded pork tenderloin sandwich in the state of Indiana.
We are just outside Majenica, a bit southwest of Fort Wayne, bound for Nick’s Kitchen in Huntington, Indiana, known since 1908 for breaded tenderloins and believed by some to be the sandwich’s birthplace. The road is the white ash of spent charcoal, and we fly through lush fields, past tidy farmhouses and sagging trailers, windows down, Miles Davis on the radio. It is a sparkling Saturday in late June, and, cigarette dangling from her mouth, a woman wearing skimpy shorts and the hint of a top points a camera at the American flag in her yard that’s clapping in the wind.
I’m no diehard, but I know we take our breaded pork tenderloins seriously. The legends attached to the sandwich support websites, blogs, and Facebook groups. The late Gourmet magazine, the Denver Post, and the Village Voice have covered it, and NBC’s Today show once broadcast from the Gnaw Bone Food & Fuel, the now-defunct gas station and home of what some believe to be the sandwich’s finest incarnation (more about that in a moment).
I’ve charted our mission using innumerable suggestions from enthusiastic friends and foodies, articles and tips from the Web, and advice from a blogger willing to be known as The Tenderloin Connoisseur. Over the next 15 days, my wife and I will zigzag more than 1,000 miles, spending hundreds of dollars to eat tenderloins from more than a dozen lauded restaurants. I’ve also contacted a team of specialists, setting out to understand what makes it taste so good and why we love it so much—and, again, to determine once and for all where the supreme expression of the sandwich might be found. What I ended up with instead was enough material for a dissertation—a long prose poem that would reveal plenty about who we are as a state, who we are as Hoosiers, and what drives our appetites.
“The state was settled by people who didn’t want to farm,” says Richard Wilk, director of food studies at Indiana University. “They wanted to be left alone. And they wanted to raise pigs.” Why not? After all, the state was chock-full of nut-bearing trees, perfect fuel for fattening pigs. Just turn ’em loose, let ’em forage for nuts, catch the ones the wolves and bears miss, slaughter ’em, and bam! You’ve got pork.
Early Hoosiers salt-cured pork in barrels, which were flat-boated down tributaries to the Mississippi. The trade took place along river routes, including White River and Monroe County’s Salt Creek. Plenty of cities were built, at least in part, from pork. Indianapolis was among them.
But some cuts of the meat, like the loin, were too soft for curing. For a time, Wilk says, “they basically gave the tenderloins away for nothing.” Enter the Germans. And the schnitzel.
For Germans migrating to Indiana in the early 1800s, Wilk says, “coming into a place where pork was cheap and abundant would have been like entering the Promised Land.” Classic schnitzel is pan-fried, but somewhere along the line, Wilk and others suggest, an enterprising German dropped a breaded schnitzel into a deep-fryer, and ach du lieber!
Today, Indiana is the fifth-largest pork producer in the country, and the industry supports 13,000 jobs, according to the Indiana Pork Producers Association. Pork contributes $3 billion annually to the state’s economy, and 2010 will be the “Year of Pigs” at the Indiana State Fair.
Before we begin, Michelle and I establish some rules and protocols. For safety, we agree to split every sandwich. Though some purists insist on nothing more than a spot of mustard and a couple dill slices as accompaniments, we prefer the fancier deluxe model and agree on tomato, onion, pickle, lettuce, and mustard. Maybe even an exotic dab of mayo.
For objectivity’s sake, we exclude the Aristocrat Pub & Restaurant, our preferred Indy tenderloin spot. Pork fritters (lesser tenderloin impersonators) shall not count. Our focus will be on the sandwich that best combines tender, juicy pork loin encrusted in a crisp-yet-not-too-greasy breading, fresh toppings, and a bun that manages to hang together until the sandwich is gone. Size, in this case, does not matter.
But as we plotted our course and logged extra treadmill time, the assignment became more than a little unnerving. After all, what restaurant in Indiana doesn’t sell the thing? And who’s to say what makes one the best?
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Downtown Huntington is a ghostly collection of empty buildings and vacant storefronts. Established in 1908 by Nick Freienstein, Nick’s Kitchen is one of the last survivors, perhaps a testament to the power of its sandwich. A large neon sign hangs over the front door, and inside is a no-frills luncheonette featuring booths, a couple of tables, and a counter.
We arrive to a full house just past noon, and shortly after we order, a golden-brown breaded tenderloin sandwich is placed in front of me. Its savory slab is hanging over a grilled bun, and it swims in an ocean of crinkle-cut fries. A tiny bowl of homemade coleslaw is perched on the plate’s edge. The sandwich smells like a piping-hot porky pie, utterly irresistible, and already I’m thinking it’s over.
Born in 1962, Nick’s current owner, Jean Anne Bailey, is practically a child of the sandwich; her father owned and ran the place from 1969 to 1989, the year she took over. Mouth half-full, I marvel at the tenderloin’s delicious breading and sweetness. Bailey buys her pork custom-cut by a local butcher. She uses the loin’s center cut because she says it cubes better (meaning it endures tenderizing without shredding), and she marinates it in buttermilk overnight before it’s breaded in cracker crumbs, cooled, and deep-fried to order. It truly is magical. “Anytime you have sweet and meat and salt,” Bailey says, “it’s usually really, really good.”
Bailey is a formidable woman, broad-shouldered and tall. Her brown hair is piled on top of her head, and, courtesy of the deep-fryer’s spray, she’s coated in a greasy film speckled with debris. She sighs as she sits down.
“Are you glad you’ve spent your life this way?” I ask.
She pauses. “Before the ‘monster’ hit, I was thinking of doing something different,” she says. The “monster” was a 2003 article in Gourmet magazine that also featured the Gnaw Bone Food & Fuel and Mr. Dave’s in North Manchester. Since then, customers have traveled for hours to try her sandwich; with them they brought a newfound appreciation for the concoction, thereby renewing her own. She’ll be here for a while.
Indy locals swear by the Mug-n-Bun Drive-in, but we find its sandwich suspiciously fritter-like. Together with the onion rings it packs a greasy wallop that hits us hard. Auburn’s Town Tavern north of Fort Wayne is the easy winner for “bun overhang”—the tenderloin portion nearly obscures the dinner plate it’s served on. But it’s also dry as sand. We love the dingy ambience at Barringer’s Famous Tavern, on Indy’s south side, but our love can’t overcome a so-so sandwich (or the bits of fried food still clinging to our paper placemats left by a previous diner).
More disappointing is the current version of what was once the famed Gnaw Bone tenderloin. Created by Beni Clevenger at the Gnaw Bone Food & Fuel, a “version” of the sandwich is now served at the 19th Hole Bar & Grille at Salt Creek Golf Retreat. “Economics got the best of me, and I closed the Food & Fuel in 2006,” Clevenger tells me when I reach him at his desk job at the Brown County Jail. In January 2007, Clevenger relocated his masterpiece to Salt Creek, but following a rift with management he decided to take his sandwich and go home. “They decided they didn’t need my services, so I took my tenderloin,” he says. “They couldn’t serve it without my agreement, because I have it trademarked.” What remains is serviceable, but it’s hard not to wish it were the real thing.
We arrive at the Nickel Plate Bar & Grill in Fishers with high expectations. Advocates of the Nickel’s fried breaded pork tenderloin include Tony Huelster, owner of Bonge’s Tavern (known for its Parmesan-encrusted schnitzel, a.k.a. Perkinsville Pork), and none other than Jean Anne Bailey. The Nickel sits alongside railroad tracks, and an old grain silo towers behind it. As much pub as restaurant, the place is packed and noisy, the crowd celebrating Friday’s arrival with plenty of cold beer. Servers carry great platters of chicken, fish, and tenderloins. The service is super, the sandwich hot, fries crisp. The overhang ratio is big but not showy. Still, on the heels of Bailey’s buttery model, it’s not a true frontrunner.
The big, juicy tenderloin we eat at Plump’s Last Shot in Broad Ripple is nearly perfect, as is the outside deck on a Sunday afternoon. The version at the Icehouse in Marion has a strange, yet not off-putting, Italian-breadcrumb quality to it. The Friendly Tavern in Zionsville offers a tremendous model plus a fine selection of really cold beer, a plus on our dusty quest. And we love the heft and crunch of the sandwich at the Green Street Pub & Eatery in Brownsburg. Even more, we adore owner Kim Hamilton-Dilton and office manager Kelly Rhoades, twin sisters who refuse to break off their secret recipe even as they hover and ask how their sandwich rates.
Home to Manchester College, a small liberal-arts school, North Manchester is a two-hour drive from Indianapolis, west of Fort Wayne and not far from Huntington. It is high noon when we roll in, smoking hot. The city is deserted. But not Mr. Dave’s. Named for its founder, 74-year-old Dave Clapp, the restaurant is full of teens and families and a few college kids stuck on campus for the summer.
Now retired, Clapp takes a day off from fishing to meet us. After we devour a thick, succulent tenderloin, the spry Clapp takes us back into a sparkling kitchen and tells Michelle she’s going to help him “knock down” an entire pork loin, which is about the size of my arm. “These knives are really sharp,” he says, as he points the tip under a film of blue-white fat (known as “silver lining”) that covers part of the loin. Clapp slices the meat into “cutlets” that are roughly a half-inch thick. “We want ’em to weigh about four ounces,” he says. “But I don’t need to weigh ’em. I’ve been doing this a long time.”
Michelle is given a meat hammer and tasked with pounding the cutlets into thinner pieces. Just five feet tall, and petite, she gingerly taps the slice. Clapp laughs, takes the hammer from her, and gives the meat a few repeated whacks. “Don’t worry about ’em. This is going to be beautiful when we’re done,” he says. Before long the two of them are cutting up like old friends.
Once sliced, each piece is hand-fed into a cuber, a machine that tenderizes the meat by puncturing it with lots of little tines before spitting it back out the other side. Then the pieces are dunked in eggs, milk, salt, and cracker meal. Clapp lets his tenderloins cool for two hours, then re-breads them before they’re lowered into a deep-fryer filled with canola oil.
Like Bailey, Clapp’s life has been spent making fried breaded tenderloin sandwiches, just as his father’s was. “I was here for 35 years before I retired 12 years ago. You miss the customers the most,” he says, choking up.
We spend almost two hours at Mr. Dave’s. Clapp reminds me of my late grandfather, a tough, proud guy who spent much of his life working in a steel mill. “It’s okay if you don’t rank us number one,” Clapp says quietly before we leave. “But I honestly don’t think you’ll find a better-prepared breaded tenderloin.”
I haven’t been to Evansville for 30 years, and when we pull up to the Gerst Bavarian Haus, it feels like we’ve stepped back in time. Founded in 1955 in Nashville, Tennessee, the restaurant is part of the Gerst Brewing Company and still serves its beer when available, along with Bavarian specialties, pig knuckles, oyster rolls, and both schnitzel and breaded tenderloins. The interior of the Gothic building features pressed-tin ceilings, mounted animal heads, and a long bar opposite snug two-seater hardwood booths with shiny black tops. A wall separates the bar from a large dining room, and a cozy biergarten flanks the building’s side.
Our waitress, Sarah, smiles mischievously when I tell her what we want and why. The sandwich’s sides feature a choice of several potato preparations, and when I ask her for a recommendation, Sarah shoots back, “I’d definitely get the German fries. They’re best friends.”
I wander around the restaurant for a few minutes, and by the time I return, our sandwich is sitting in front of Michelle, and she’s already taken a bite.
“You try it,” she says, wearing a poker face that should be making us rich.
It is not the largest sandwich. But it starts with a buttery grilled bun followed by fresh tomato, onion, and pickle, brown mustard and mayo, and then light-as-a-feather, peppery breading before finishing with a cut of pork that is as sweet and tender as a first kiss. The German fries are thin-sliced, skin-on potatoes fried and tossed with gooey caramelized onions. Washed down with an ice-cold beer served in a frosty “fishbowl,” these aren’t the best friends Sarah suggested. They’re more like intimate partners sharing some sort of soul-changing DNA. Game over.
We drive home through Southern Indiana’s rolling hills, through Loogootee and Dale and Washington, and I have time to think. Plenty of people have compared our love of tenderloins with our love of basketball. And I begin to understand that both are about what we know, our community, our friends, and the people who pour their hearts into something, even if it is only a game, or a sandwich. At least they care.