It’s not yet noon when we pull into Wellsburg, Iowa, curious and hungry for lunch.
We wonder why the village, population 700, needs a one-way street downtown.
We wonder why Town House Supper Club, our destination, opens at 6 a.m.
And we wonder what one of us, a vegetarian, will find to eat.
The pork tenderloin is what brings us here, 40 miles west of Waterloo. It was judged best in Iowa in 2006 and is part of the new, 14-stop Iowa Pork Tenderloin Trail.
Inside the Town House is a nifty collection of vintage model vehicles, trucks to tractors. For sale are “Eat Pork” T-shirts. Waitress April Gohring is working the floor solo.
My friend scans the one-page menu and orders sides of potato salad, cottage cheese and pea salad. That’s a $5 lunch and more than she can eat.
I favor the Pee Wee Tenderloin at $3.85 but notice the $20 Big Foot Challenge. In between are queen and king cuts.
Tackling the Big Foot, a three-pound tenderloin, gets your mugshot on a “wall of fame” or “wall of shame.” To get your money back, finish the sandwich in 30 minutes or less; “losers get to take their leftovers home,” signage explains.
Bob Valentine, who moved to Wellsburg in 1961, comes to the Town House twice a day (once for morning coffee, once for lunch) and says the food attracts folks from other communities.
The retired teacher and coach also drove the school bus and taught driver’s ed in the area. Now he is chief caregiver for his wife of 60 years.
Our chatter is friendly and matter-of-fact. I am gently chastised for not ordering the daily special, the queen tenderloin for $5. It’s a better investment, unless pacing yourself is the priority.
When lunch arrives, the meat on my little sandwich is fat, juicy and tender. It is the first of six pork tenderloins that I will taste within 48 hours as my good-sport friend patiently scrounges for vegetables.
Like a good bratwurst in Wisconsin, the breaded pork tenderloin shows up everywhere, drive-in restaurants to sports bars.
Brick Street Café is inside of a newish grocery store in Bondurant, population 3,860 and 15 miles northeast of Des Moines. Owners Brian and Mary Lohse won a $202 million Powerball lottery in 2012.
“They love their small town and still wanted to live here,” said Jeff Lawrence, café manager. So the winners got a new house, paid off their church’s mortgage and bought what they thought Bondurant needed most: a new high school football stadium and a grocery store.
“A lot of small towns don’t have the things that keep them alive, like a grocery store,” Lawrence said.
The breaded pork tenderloin, handcut from the loin and tenderized, is made to order and the café’s bestseller. “I suppose our little secret is the breading process,” Lawrence says.
It involves buttermilk and a secret breading mix, sometimes sold by the pound.
The tenderloins have been mailed as far as Florida. Sometimes overnight shipping costs more than the meat.
Before this road trip ends, I see breaded pork tenderloin pounded so thin that it covers a dinner plate, served with sausage and gravy for breakfast and nearly usurping the popularity of ice cream at tiny Goldie’s, a longtime pit stop in Prairie City, population 1,680 and 20 miles east of Des Moines.
Brad Magg won the state prize for best breaded tenderloin in 2009, two years after he turned 20 and bought Goldie’s Ice Cream Shoppe. Now it is open all year instead of seasonally.
The owner, an Iowa Culinary Institute grad, said he baked and sold pies and cakes before he was 10 years old. He began a catering business while in junior high school and has begun his eighth year on the Colfax City Council (population 2,000 and “one town away”).
When he says “I’m a big believer in keeping it simple,” Magg is talking about a cooking philosophy. That involves a seasoned cracker crumb breading and only center-cut tenderloin in his award-winning sandwiches; average sales are 247 per day.
The most popular side, potato salad, is made with his grandmother’s recipe. “We don’t need to reinvent the wheel,” Magg said. Gooseberry and other pies, “made by the school nurse,” also lure the hungry.
Waits aren’t unusual during prime meal times, but don’t expect an expansion. “Food tastes better if you have a wait a few minutes for a table,” Magg said.
Right across from the World’s Largest Truck Stop, off Interstate 80 and just west of the Quad Cities, is Gramma’s Kitchen, whose breaded pork tenderloin was state champ in 2011. The Travel Channel came to call one year later, while doing truck stop research, which gave Gramma’s unexpected, nationwide exposure.
“We’re an old-style, from-scratch kitchen,” says Bryan Tyler, general manager. Meat loaf, apple pie and the BBLT (two layers of bacon) sandwich draw additional raves.
Also known nationwide are the tenderloins at TC’s Point After, a cozy sports bar in DeWitt, population 5,300 and north of the Quads.
That’s because the former owner, Chuckie Cox, hits the road with Chuckie’s Tenderloin Trucks, selling the sandwiches at NASCAR races, spring training baseball games, state fairs and other high-profile events.
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