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Old 10-29-2007, 05:06 AM   #1
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Default Another Heartland Tour in Iowa

Thursday morning I delivered my wife to the airport so she could fly to Washington DC to visit our daughter and granddaughter. She got the one free ticket. I wasn't about to sit at home by myself so I decided one last pork tenderloin pursuit in the camper van was in order. My destination this time was west central Iowa since the 2007 Iowa Pork Producers Association (IPPA) best breaded tenderloin sandwich was awarded to Larsen's Pub in the Danish heritage town of Elk Horn. Incentive ran high in that nearby Darrell's Place in the tiny berg of Hamlin was a previous winner and a restaurant owner posting on another forum wished people would visit his Farmer's Kitchen in the relatively metropolitan town of Atlantic in that area (they have a Wal-Mart and stop lights). That was enough. I was on my way.

However, first stop was in northeast Iowa just across the Minnesota border but I will get to that later. I drove to Lake Anita State Park about 12 miles east of Atlantic and about midway between Des Moines and Omaha to establish a beach head. This is the third Iowa state park that I have stayed in that was established on what is basically a small reservoir with camping and picnicking but very little wilderness. It wasn't isolated. It was adjacent to the town of Anita. Camping provisions are great and inexpensive. I might add it beats spending a night boondocking in a Wal-Mart parking lot.

After securing a site while it was still daylight I proceeded on to Atlantic and the Farmer's Kitchen. The Farmer's Kitchen is downtown. I could hear the Thursday night auction taking place a block away, "Who'll gimmie, who'll gimmie. . . sold!" in the background.

There I met Mark Johnson and his mother. The Farmer's Kitchen received an honorable mention best breaded tenderloin sandwich in 2005 so naturally that is what I had. It was made from a six ounce pork loin and was very good. Mark and I traded ideas in hopes of making it a 2008 winner.

I could not leave without trying his Mom's top selling home made pie. So I had the sour cream raisin. Mark's Mom admitted she did not like raisins but it was a top seller. I like raisins and could see immediately why on first bite it was a top seller.

I retired that night at the campground on a very full stomach and managed to sleep 10 hours under a full moon. There were only about a half dozen of us adventurous souls in a campground with about 180 campsites this midweek night with temperatures dropping into the low 40s.

The next day for lunch I headed over to Elk Horn known for its Danish immigrant heritage. To kill the morning I stopped at the Danish windmill that originally built in Denmark in 1848, dismantled in 1975 and reassembled in Elk Horn in 1976. I watched to video on its history and construction and toured the insides. I also stocked up on some imported Danish Havarti, Brie and Camembert cheese.

When Larsen's Pub opened at 11 AM I walked down the street. It was about a block away from the windmill on the main street right next to the town hall. I also passed by what must have been a fine restaurant, The Danish Kitchen, judging by the full parking lot.

I plumped myself at the bar next to the IPPA award plaque and ordered their tenderloin. It was a very deserving tenderloin also cut from a pork loin but a tad bigger at about 7 ounces. Was it the best? Admittedly slightly better than the Farmer's Kitchen but I would have to put last years winner, the Townhouse Supper Club in Wellsburg, a tad above. I thought I would eat half of it and take out the other half for later but I ate the dang thing. OK, it was good.

I was now three tenderloins in, satisfied, and on my way home. I decided I would continue taking the back roads through farm country and observe the fall harvest. Well, that put me smack dab, just another 11 miles, in Hamlin, nothing but a cross roads, and there was Darrell's Place in a yellow metal building wooing me.

Two lunches? I had to see the 2003 winner. I might never make it back. I caved and went in and sat at the bar counter. Little did I know that I sat down next to the owner, Jeff. He and his wife took over the restaurant from his parents last year. I still didn't know if I actually wanted a tenderloin or just maybe see one, or just maybe order one to go and stick in my refrigerator (in the camper van). Since I was there and got to talking to Jeff I ordered one. Luckily it was cut from a pork loin personally by Jeff at 4 ounces and not an eighth of an ounce over or under according to his trained eye. The sandwich was much more modest than the others (and less expensive) but was just as good. I got to talking so much I almost forgot to take a picture and was already two bites into it.

Thank heavens I didn't eat a breakfast. I thought I better get home before cardiac arrest with all that deep fry pulsing through my arteries. But danged if my GPS wasn't taking me right through Humboldt in north central Iowa. Yep, the 2007 second place winner, Rustix restaurant was there.

Again, I said to myself I might never make it back and the judges said it was a close second place finish. Against better judgment I stopped in about 4 PM too early for dinner. I was there so I ordered a Sierra Nevada Pale Ale and their tenderloin. It was a bit larger pork loin cut and was breaded with corn flakes. Rustix Restaurant was a bit more upscale than the other typical Iowan places I had been in. It was more typical of the kind of places I encountered in Indiana. Rustix fell victim to two faults I've had with places like that. Whoever prepped the pork loin did not know how to cut out the gristle even though it is so easy to do so. I wondered if this was because there was no family pride thing going on with personal hands on attention. Secondly it was fried a tad greasy which is a trait when you try to serve a too large and too thick tenderloin. The taste, however, was satisfyingly good.

My appetite was really tanking. I ate half out of courtesy and doggy bagged the remainder and definitely headed for home with no more stops in mind.

This now brings me full circle to the beginning saving the first and best for last. There were 44 nominees for the 2007 IPPA contest. I noticed there were several past winners, runner ups and honorable mentions on the list but over the years, to my knowledge, there had never been any repeats. There are a lot of restaurants and diners serving breaded pork tenderloins in Iowa but I found it fascinating no restaurant could repeat with 5 chances each year for mention to do so. I also assumed maybe if you were not on the nomination list that you just might be way down on the totem pole of deserving consideration.

With all that assumptive knowledge on my way to Iowa I detoured anyway over to Mason City on an email recommendation from two different people - one local and current and one who moved away years ago. In light of IPPA nominations my thoughts were that this could be another Igloo (Peru, IL) or Mug'n'Bun (Speedway, IN) disappointment. The destination was a diner not on the list of 44 nominations. It was the Suzie-Q Cafe, a classic Valentine Diner built in 1948 in Wichita, KS and shipped to the site. The history of these diners can be found here and could be a separate road food pursuit to find the presumed 40+ still in business.

This diner was a tiny 10 stool diner in downtown Mason City.

Here is an interior 360 degree view.

Now about that tenderloin. It wasn't breaded. It was battered in a peppery batter and maybe that was not why it was on the "breaded" pork tenderloin sandwich nomination list. Who knows? Suzie-Q Cafe has had several owners over the years and was taken over by Troy Levenhagen and family last year. Troy is also known as Levey the Great and is a magician for hire. Let's say his tenderloin is magic but it really is a recipe he took over called Spic'n'Span. Spic'n'Span? I forgot to ask. But there is something magical about this tenderloin. It tasted absolutely great and if you want a unique experience in sandwich tasting this definitely is the one.

All in all, I drove over 900 miles in two days on this pursuit all on the back roads mostly in Iowa. Iowa is farm country through and through all the way to its four borders. Farming is mainly corn and hogs which explains the ubiquitous bread pork tenderloin sandwich. Combines were busy in the fields. Tractors and loaders slowed me down on several roads. Trucks were busy hauling corn to full grain elevators in tiny bergs about every 6 miles. It was bustling and it was satisfying to see the hard workers everywhere including the patrons in all the restaurants I stopped in on these two fall days. God, it was pure Americana. Iowans should be proud.

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Old 10-29-2007, 03:19 PM   #2
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It sounds like a fun weekend Dave! I was born and raised in Iowa and flew in and out of most of those towns with my Dad when I was little.

We had kind of thought of getting off I-80 at Avoca yesterday morning then heading north on Hwy 59 to drive through the small towns, then stop in Storm Lake to see how things are going on the farm. However, work won out so we stuck to the interstate and took the fast way home. Bummer!

A good traveler has no fixed plans, and is not intent on arriving. ~ Lao Tzu
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