The Best Breaded Pork Tenderloin Sandwiches in the Midwest

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[Photographs: Titus Ruscitti]

When people in 48 of America's 50 great states think "tenderloin," they probably imagine something like this.

Then there's Iowa and Indiana, where "tenderloin" doesn't necessarily mean filet mignon. It doesn't even call for beef. Because these states are the home of the Breaded Pork Tenderloin sandwich, aka the BPT, aka a crisp fried pork loin cutlet on a soft, pillowy hamburger bun. Meatier than a chicken cutlet or fish filet but still light and juicy, it's so smart a concept, you'd wonder why it's not on menus everywhere. Like beef tenderloin, pork loin doesn't have much fat, so you have to cook it quickly if you want your meat juicy. Pounding the loin thin, then breading and frying it, is one smart way to get there.

Where I live in Chicago, you won't find much mention of a BPT. But once I started traveling around the region I realized how abundant they are in both Iowa and Indiana, as well as some other pockets of the Midwest such as central Illinois and Kansas City. Over in Iowa, you can find a BPT in almost every town. The Iowa Pork Producers Association even hands out a best sandwich-in-state award every year at the State Fair.

The story goes that the BPT was invented at Nick's Kitchen in the small town of Huntington, Indiana, where Nick Freienstein started selling hamburgers out of a cart in 1904 before opening a brick and mortar in 1908. From there the sandwich spread across central Indiana and before long became a rich Hoosier tradition.

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The BPT at Nick's Kitchen.

It likely came about from the Czech/Bohemian community that settled in and around Cedar Rapids, who wanted to make traditional German-Asutrian schnitzel but didn't have much of the traditional veal. While immigrants in Texas made do with beef, in the Midwest they went for pork, and deep fried the cutlet instead of pan-frying it.

There's no one way to make a BPT. Some coatings are traditional breadings while others are batters, and portion sizes can range from normal patties to obscenely large. Toppings have few rules either, but the standard cast of characters includes classic burger toppings like lettuce, tomato, onion, mustard or mayo, ketchup, and pickles. Like the bun, toppings are kind of incidental to a BPT—this sandwich is all about crisp, juicy, well-fried pork, an homage to the Midwests's love of the fryer.

Though the BPT is more common than ever these days, it can be hard to know where to get a good one. Too many places buy their cutlets frozen and pre-breaded, and lots of BPTs are dry and tasteless. The best are still made the old fashioned way: pounding pork loin by hand, then breading or battering and frying to order. Here are 10 spots to get them done right.

Nick's Kitchen, Huntington, IN

What's a BPT roundup without the sandwich's birthplace? Nick's claims to stay true to their nearly hundred-year-old roots, making their sandwich the same as on day one. The end result is a shockingly huge breaded loin that's crisp on the outside and juicy on the inside. The ends hanging off the sides of the bun form extra crisp nubbins; they're best broken off to be nibbled on straight before diving into the sandwich proper. This is the BPT version of the Carnegie deli pastrami sandwich—that is, novelty-sized—and it's one of the better versions of that style. Make sure to get some homemade pie as well.

TC's Point After, DeWitt, IA

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This small town town sports bar in a town on the outskirts of the Quad Cities region makes one of my favorite tenderloins to date. The tender cutlet spurts juices on your first bite; the sandwich is so juicy you may want to give it a minute to settle down. The menu claims they "take a whole pork loin, cut off about a six-ounce center portion of pork, run it through a tenderizer front and back, and then coat it with a secret homemade batter." The batter coating isn't too thick, and at six ounces this cutlet proves that a tenderloin doesn't need to be extremely large to be in charge. It finished in second place at the 2009 State Fair, but to me it might be second to none.

The Friendly Tavern, Zionsville, IN

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One of the smaller Indiana tenderloins I've tried, and one of the better. This neighborhood tap on the outskirts of Indianapolis is a lovable place for locals to eat, drink, and hang out, and the most popular menu item is the BPT. Since the sandwich's ingredients don't vary much from place to place, their quality matters. Friendly Tavern's pork tastes especially fresh and porky, and the cutlet's light batter doesn't obscure that freshness.

Breitbach's Country Dining, Balltown, IA

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Iowa's oldest bar/restaurant has survived everything from Prohibition to two separate large fires. Opened in 1852 by a federal permit issued from President Millard Fillmore, the place is currently owned by the sixth-generation descendants of the original owners. It's a popular stop with both locals and bikers traveling the Great River Road, and one of the more scenic views in the state is the overlook a few hundred feet down the road.

Fried chicken is one popular choice; the BPT is the other. Here the tenderloin—from a nearby butcher—is pounded thin, then coated in a craggly, crackly batter with almost lacy edges. The pork inside stays wonderfully juicy, so it's no surprise this place won the BPT first prize at the 2012 State Fair.

The Steer-In, Indianapolis, IN

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Say what you will about Guy Fieri, his Diners, Drive-Ins, and Dives does spotlight some good locally loved spots. One winner is the historic Steer-In Diner in Indianapolis. It's been a local favorite since 1960, and while I've enjoyed everything I've tried on the menu, it's the BPT that's especially worth paying attention to. Take a look at that thick, deeply textured chicken-fried-steak-esque batter. It's laced with black pepper, unusual for a BPT, and a definite upgrade to the juicy pork inside. The onion rings on the side are coated with the same batter, which gives them a deep, satisfying, and peppery crunch.

B&B Grocery, Des Moines, IA

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There are lots of loins to try in Des Moines. One of the local favorites is B&B Grocery, a family business since 1922 which doubles as a grocery store with an old-school deli and meat market in the back. The deli sandwiches are enormous, but the BPT is much more petite: battered and pounded especially thin for a big crunch. All it needs is some pickle chips.

If you're looking for something more exotic than the traditional pork, B&B will also make a similar sandwich with Italian sausage, turkey, and even chorizo.

Ray's Drive-In, Kokomo, IN

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Is this the largest BPT in the world? That's what the folks at Ray's say, and I can't say they're wrong. You need three hands to hold up the King Tenderloin, an Andre-the-Giant-sized sandwich that would still overhang a second bun. The behemoth, dressed with mustard, mayo, and some much-needed onion, tomato, lettuce, and pickles, is surprisingly moist and well-seasoned for something so large. The breading is a mix of fine crumbs and fatter chunks which turn extra crisp in the fryer. You can get the sandwich in a smaller size if you're not hungry enough to eat a bear, but hey, you only live once.

Goldie's Ice Cream Shoppe, Prairie City, IA

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Don't let the name of the town fool you—this is a small mom-and-pop shop located in a petite corn-growing town about 20 miles east of Des Moines. They serve two of Iowa's main food groups: ice cream and a BPT, the latter of which won the 2009 first prize at the State Fair. Winning that competition can mean a big uptick in business, and now Goldie's goes through almost 1,500 BPTs a week.

The sandwich is plus-sized, as corn farmers need their fuel, but not comically huge, so you get a few bread-free bites before digging into the soft bun. The pork itself is incredibly juicy and tender, with a clean taste that lets the toppings come through. Crisp battered fries on the side fill it out well.

The Ariston Cafe, Litchfield, IL

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This central Illinois stop has been going strong since 1924 when it was founded by a Greek immigrant in nearby Carlinville. It moved into its current location in 1935, and these days it's the oldest running restaurant on America's Mothership, Route 66. One of the most beloved bites there is the BPT, with a batter and fry job that produces some deeply browned nooks and crannies. The fat, juicy cutlet hangs off the bun, but not so much that you can't eat it in a sandwich form. It's just one of the many reasons Ariston has survived while so many other Route 66 business have disappeared.

Kitty's Cafe, Kansas City, MO

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As you can see from the picture, this isn't your Hoosier grandma's tenderloin. Kitty's Cafe was founded in 1951 by a Japanese-American couple who were interned out west during World War II, then shipped against their will to Kansas City. The original owners added some Japanese touches to the menu which the current owners have preserved. Here the BPT is made with a tempura batter for a thick crunch and it's topped with hot sauce. An "everything" order also adds lettuce, tomatoes, and pickles, which add some freshness to cut the batter.

The cutlets are small, so the kitchen stacks a few on top of each other. And even though the meat's pounded thin and given an ample crust, it tastes remarkably light. It's one of the better bites I've enjoyed in Kansas City, and certainly one of the most novel ways to enjoy this Midwestern classic.