Those who meet Rick Garrett, our country’s most fastidious chronicler of the Indiana breaded pork tenderloin, might notice similarities between man and sandwich.
Both are nice in a Midwestern sort of way. Both are plain in a non-ostentatious sort of way. Both are a bit round in the middle; Garrett — down 80 pounds and counting — still accommodates a few breaded tenderloins a month for journalistic thoroughness.
Garrett is the self-appointed “Tenderloin Connoisseur,” with the credentials to back up that title. Over the last three years, he has traveled to every corner of the Hoosier State and sampled more than 120 versions, reviewing each breaded tenderloin on his blog (breadedtenderloin.wordpress.com) with the verve of a Roger Ebert.
The biggest surprise is that 120-plus variants of the sandwich exist in Indiana, and that’s probably not even the half of it. Every pub in the state, Garrett told me, has its own version.
Regional sandwiches can be attention seekers. In Pittsburgh, you’ll find french fries stuffed in sandwiches. In Manhattan, pastrami and corned beef are stacked several inches between bread. In New Orleans, a roll might come overflowing with fried shrimp plus roast beef gravy.
The Indiana breaded pork tenderloin is identifiable by one trait: a disc of fried, pounded pork with a diameter exceeding that of the bun. The meat juts out like the rings of Saturn. Even with the cutlet’s showy heft, the neutrality of pork makes the sandwich simultaneously indulgent to devour and modest in taste.
I joined Garrett for lunch at an Irish pub, the Aristocrat. He has a jocular air to his demeanor: A longtime firefighter and paramedic, he spends his retirement days playing Celtic music, performing stand-up comedy and writing about breaded tenderloin sandwiches. He’s tasted enough to opine on the intricate differences between good and great. The problem, he said, is that most non-Hoosiers who have sampled tenderloin only try it at the big chains.
Because breading and frying is such an idiosyncratic art form (think fried chicken), every neighborhood restaurant’s sandwich will have its own distinctive take. And it’s in these less-heralded corner pubs, Garrett said, where breaded tenderloin culture in Indiana thrives and deserves greater exposure.
It’s no surprise that the sandwich has a following in Indiana, our nation’s fifth-largest pork-producing state, according to the National Pork Producers Council. Also not surprisingly, breaded pork tenderloin is popular in Iowa, the No. 1 pork-producing state. But through his travels, Garrett said, he has found differences between the two versions.
Don’t call it ‘pork’
“For one, they call it a breaded pork tenderloin in Iowa and breaded tenderloin in Indiana. That’s not universal, but about 90 percent true,” he said. “The ones in Iowa also tend to be pounded out thinner. Iowa tends to take it to the extreme, looking like hubcaps. The ones in Indiana are more the thickness of pork chops.”
Naturally, Garrett said he prefers the Indiana version, and it’s not just civic allegiance: “When you bite into a thicker sandwich, you get the crunch of the breading, then the firmness of the pork. It’s two distinct textures you’re biting into. The ones pounded so thin, you get one crunch and that’s it.”
When our sandwich arrived at the Aristocrat, the meat looked like an LP record of craggily breaded fried pork wearing a disproportionately small bun, like a comically miniature bowler hat. There was enough pork to slice off the overlap and make one and a half more sandwiches.
I took my sandwich the way Garrett takes his: ketchup, mayonnaise and raw onions. Those toppings provided a rich tang with a sharp bite. If color had a flavor, this cutlet tasted of golden, fresh, fried breading, crisp and grease-free, the mellow savor of lean pork. It is all about texture; the good ones, Garrett said, retain their crispness long after your sandwich hits the table. That’s the mark of a skilled fry cook.
I asked Garrett what made the breaded tenderloin so integral to Indiana. He thought for a while, then answered: “When I think back about my family, and my personal background, none of us were showy. We did everything we could to not call attention to ourselves. I think that’s what the sandwich is. Just plain, but good. And that’s how I think of Indiana people. As a rule, we’re not showy, flamboyant people. We’re just people you can count on.”