Ask a Midwesterner: Understanding the Hoosier Pork Tenderloin
With Indianapolis Monthly's Julia Spalding
By Jed Portman
What's more Midwestern than a Hoosier breaded pork tenderloin sandwich?
It’s economical and often massive—defined by a slice of pork pounded out until it’s as big as a dinner plate. It’s democratic. Many of the best versions come from bars and diners. It’s practical. Why eat schnitzel with a knife and fork when you can put it on a bun? Most importantly, it’s darn good. You’ve never had a piece of fried chicken as tender as a golden-brown breaded pork tenderloin.
The breaded pork tenderloin sandwich—known to some fans as a BPT—isn’t exclusive to Indiana, though it likely originated there in the early 1900s. Iowa has its own Tenderloin Trail, and you’ll see examples from all over the country in lively and occasionally contentious Facebook groups including “Pursuing Pork Tenderloin Sandwiches,” “National Breaded Pork Tenderloin Sandwiches Group 24/7,” and “Breaded Pork Tenderloin Sandwiches, Hoosier Style!”
Still, it’s hardly mainstream. And if you don’t know better, the outrageous size of many pounded tenderloins might have you thinking that the sandwich is some kind of culinary joke, playing into regional stereotypes. So I reached out to an expert to get some local perspective. Julia Spalding is a lifelong breaded pork tenderloin fan and the diligent dining editor at Indianapolis Monthly.
Q: To start, why are some Hoosier tenderloins so big?
The practical explanation is just the way they’re made. Basically, you start with a tenderloin, cut it into slices about an inch thick, and then pound those down to about a quarter inch to get the right texture. You’re going to end up with something that will fill a dinner plate by the time you’re done pounding.
That’s the practical answer. I think the visual novelty is what makes the sandwich fun. It’s hilarious to look at, especially when a restaurant uses a standard-sized bun, which most do. When people see that for the first time, their eyes bulge out of their heads. It looks very intimidating.
Also, it offers a big bang for your buck. If it’s on the menu, it’s probably going to be the biggest thing you can get. So there’s the value aspect. That plays well in the Midwest.
Q: Why do you think pork tenderloin sandwiches are so popular in Indiana specifically?
Well, they’re delicious! No denying that. I love the texture. It’s crunchy, meaty, tender... If it’s done right, you get a nice, squishy bun.
It’s fun to have a culinary claim to fame. And it’s pork. We’re big pork people. We’re big sandwich people. We’re big diner and bar food people. It fits into all those categories. Right there in the middle, where all of our culinary interests overlap, you’re going to find the breaded pork tenderloin sandwich.
What are the fundamentals of an Indiana pork tenderloin sandwich?
I like a pork tenderloin with a lot of little, crunchy crevices, as opposed to the smoother versions. If you’re going to make a tenderloin, first of all, the most important thing is that you pound it flat—as flat as you can get it. Some people will brine it, often in buttermilk, overnight or for a couple of hours. Then, there’s the flour dredging, the egg dip, and a coating of breadcrumbs, packaged or homemade, or ground-up saltine crackers, which I like. They give you texture and a little bit of salt. You fry it. I know restaurants deep-fry it, but I just do a pan-fry on each side. It doesn’t take long to cook, because the meat is so thin, but you have to get a nice, golden color. The thinness of the meat, the crunchiness of the coating, and the color—those are the three targets you have to hit.
Then, there are two camps for toppings: You either do lettuce, tomato, and mayo or you do mustard and pickle. It’s one or the other. This is not a sandwich you put cheese on. Think about how ridiculous that is, putting a slice of cheese on a pork tenderloin sandwich… You’re mocking the tradition, doing that.
What do only Indianans know about eating breaded pork tenderloins?
There are different techniques for eating one. The Hamilton County, Indiana, visitor’s bureau actually created a guide, which is cute—and so relatable.
You can edge it, stack it, or halve it. Edging it is eating around the edges, which is the way I do it. You eat the part of the tenderloin that isn’t under the bun first. If you stack it, you cut the tenderloin and layer it on the bun for a double- or triple-decker sandwich, effectively. Halving it is just cutting the tenderloin in half. You can take the other half home for later. Here’s something a lot of people don’t know: You can order an extra bun with your tenderloin. It usually comes out in a to-go box, for a nominal fee. You cut the tenderloin in half, eat it with the first bun, and then make yourself a second sandwich at home later, for a snack.
Where would you send someone for a perfect BPT?
I’ve been thinking a lot about this. There’s a bar in Broad Ripple, which is a neighborhood in Indianapolis, called Plump’s Last Shot. It has a good story, which makes it even more endearing. It’s owned by Bobby Plump, who was immortalized, more or less, in the movie Hoosiers. He was one of the actual Milan High School basketball players who inspired the movie—the one who made the game-winning shot. Plump’s has a good, big breaded pork tenderloin, and if you go in the summer, you can eat it out on the deck.
Another place I really like is the Oasis Diner. It’s an old-school metal diner that was shipped via railroad to Plainfield, Indiana, in the mid-1950s. It has a lot of diner kitsch in a cool interior. Then, another popular option is an Irish bar in Carmel called Muldoon’s. That’s one of the places that makes an enormous tenderloin. You can get another enormous tenderloin at the Aristocrat Pub in Indianapolis. All of those sandwiches are great for different reasons.
One unconventional choice: There’s a tiki bar in Indianapolis called Strange Bird, and they do a coconut-crusted tenderloin on a Hawaiian bun. It’s a Polynesian spin on tradition, with pickles, shrettuce, and special sauce, and it’s really good.
Jed Portman edits Midwesterner. A Cincinnati native, he previously covered Southern food traditions as an editor at Charleston, South Carolina’s Garden & Gun. He is currently the communications manager at Hamilton, Ohio’s 80 Acres Farms. He lives in Cincinnati with his wife, Sara, and their dog, Hank.
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