Photos by Zak Neumann / Little Village
The pork tenderloin sandwich ranks among Iowa’s most important culinary contributions, alongside Maid-Rites, puppy chow and Casey’s breakfast pizza. The formula is simple: A piece of pork loin is pounded thin, battered and deep fried, served on a bun which it humorously dwarfs in size and topped most typically with LTOP and mayo. For the uninitiated, the sandwich’s intimidating diameter can make it seem inaccessible. Fear not! I’m here to guide you.
I sampled some of the most renowned t-loins of the area to decide who’s serving the best take on the classic. To standardize the comparison, I broke things down into a few simple categories.
#1 The Dark Horse
130 N Dubuque St, Iowa City, 319-354-7677
SIZE: pretty good. The patty is maybe 150% of the size of the bun but definitely not head-sized.
BREADING: surprisingly deeply browned. The extra fry time gives it a little bitterness, which isn’t necessarily a bad thing but definitely means it calls out for sauce. If you’re less of a traditionalist than me, one of Pop’s BBQ’s housemade sauces could really shine here. Crunch factor was a 4 out of 5.
PORK: The sandwich seems to have soaked up some innate barbeque-iness from the general atmosphere of Pop’s, almost a scent more than a flavor. Regardless, it’s giving a unique little somethin’-somethin’ because of it.
FIXINS: Pop’s serves it up with LTOP and your choice of BBQ sauces or standard condiments. The sides at Pop’s are hard to beat, and that bumps up the overall experience a notch. Ya know what? A bonus point for the mac and cheese. Because I make the rules.
VERDICT: a good pick, but the darkness of the fry isn’t my favorite. I can imagine it being to someone else’s taste, though. The vague smoky aroma sets this one apart. As of the time of ordering, this was my husband’s favorite, and that’s saying something given how many tenderloins we had eaten that week.
#2 Hot Mama
900 E 2nd Ave, Coralville, 319-351-3800
951 Blairs Ferry Rd NE, Cedar Rapids, 319-200-2010
SIZE: larger than bun, smaller than head. “Meets Expectations.”
BREADING: 30Hop’s tenderloin is breaded with panko rather than the more traditional breadcrumbs. To my tooth, this gives a satisfying crunch, though it’s more fine textured than I’m used to. It’s like a lot of little crunches rather than one big one.
PORK: on the thick side and very juicy. The pork flavor is very present. This pork sure is … porky!
FIXINS: The fixins are the main event with this one. 30Hop’s t-loin comes with a spicy-sweet, Asian-inspired slaw, pickled onion, sweet pickles, jalapenos and Dynamite sauce. The slaw is colorful and has good crunch but tends toward the sweet side, playing on the time-honored pairing of pork with sweet fruits. A bold and innovative move, tastily made but decidedly untraditional.
VERDICT: She’s a beaut, but she’s not The One. But for the tenderloin lover looking to spice things up, this is a creative sandwich when understood outside the cultural context of Iowa tenderloin. If I were to quabble, though, I don’t think it should be listed just as “Pork Tenderloin” on the menu, because it’s not really a pork tenderloin, at the end of the day. It’s a pretty dang good sandwich, though.
#3 Miss Congeniality
Shakespeare’s Pub and Grill
819 S 1st Ave, Iowa City, 319-337-7275
SIZE: surprisingly small; Shakespeare’s tenderloin is larger than the bun but not by much. Despite that, the sandwich still has that unmistakable, classic look, so in my book, it gets a pass.
BREADING: absolutely fabulous. It’s the sheet-like kind, golden in color and slightly sweet with satisfying crispiness and good adherence to the pork. Perfect execution.
PORK: looks a bit thick at first glance, but it’s a trick of the breading. This one’s pounded nicely thin but still plenty juicy.
FIXINS: LTOP and a good bun. What more could you ask for? Like the leaves that offset a beautiful rose, this tenderloin is made tastier by its proximity to Shakespeare’s excellent cheese nugs.
VERDICT: I wanna smother it on my body. If I had an out-of-state friend visiting who had never heard of a breaded tenderloin sandwich, this is one I’d pick for them to try; it ticks all the boxes. And with everything else Shakespeare’s has going for it — good beer selection, hometown bar atmosphere, tasty wings — it’s a respectable choice that will never let you down. I thought it was the ultimate winner, but then I had…
#4 The G.O.A.T.
2660 Wiley Blvd SW, Ste B, Cedar Rapids, 319-390-4288
SIZE: absolutely insane. Three times the size of the bun, or maybe more. Joensy’s also offers a “small” version, but the bigg’un is in the spirit of the sandwich, if you ask me.
BREADING: a curiously variable texture that provides both big and little crunchies, which has the subjective effect of being totally addictive. Begging for mustard and pickles. Again, perfect.
PORK: paper thin and still somehow manages to be juicy. It’s kind of miraculous.
FIXINS: keeps it classic with toppings, but that’s what I came for. Joensy’s has legitimately the best french fries I’ve ever had — golden, gorgeous, delicately crispy on the outside and fluffy and snow-white inside.
VERDICT: The sign says “Iowa’s Biggest and Best Tenderloin,” and Joensy’s delivers on the promise. This place reminds me of the small town greasy spoons where I first fell in love with tenderloin. But if you want swank, if you want to feel cool and trendy, this place isn’t for you, and maybe neither is tenderloin. Joensy’s contribution to the tradition is in fact too good for my hypothetical out-of-state friend. They wouldn’t give it the due respect. It feels almost exotic in its authenticity. Absolutely full marks, and also SO CHEAP. As it turns out, the best t-loin comes from a place with wood-patterned formica booths, a NASCAR/Busch digital clock on the wall, and a pizza burger on the menu — which I should have expected all along.
This article was originally published in the 2022 Bread & Butter dining guide.