Five years ago when I first moved to Iowa I was quickly schooled about a few things…
- The difference between the Hawkeyes from The University of Iowa in Iowa City vs. the Cyclones from Iowa State University in Ames.
- Iowans take their State Fair very seriously. Seriously.
- It’s catty-corner, not kitty-corner.
- Loud thunderstorms
- Aunt is pronounced “ant” in these parts.
All of these things could have their own blog post, but today we will focus on only one.
#7 – The Tenderloin
Iowa is known for its pork. There are great pork products to be found all over the state. Great bacon, great pork chops on a stick, and even local award-winning Prosciutto Americano. But the pork “tenderloin” is very popular here in Central Iowa. There are several restaurants which are dedicated to serving tenderloins as their specialty. To the common observer it is a sandwich. Well, kind of a sandwich. It is usually dwarfs any bun it is put on and sometimes it can be larger than your head. It is a cut of pork that is tenderized, pounded out, breaded, deep fried, and served on a bun.
Since living here I have only tasted a few tenderloins, usually they were at local restaurants which offered a tenderloin option on their menu, but did not specialize in tenderloins. They were good, but not stellar. These tenderloins didn’t help me understand all the fuss. It was basically a breaded pork sandwich. That being said, I had never actually been to any of the places around the city that specialize in tenderloins.
Could I really judge the tenderloin? No, not really.
Last winter we did a Taco Crawl. This spring it was time for The Tenderloin Crawl!
8 of us would eat our way through 6 selected tenderloin spots in Des Moines. The restaurants were all surveyed on the following criteria; Ambiance, Service, Presentation, Taste, & Quality. While all of these factors were considered, it was the overall taste of the tenderloin which held the highest weight in the overall rankings. The rankings were based on the basic tenderloin, on our groups’ overall experiences, the particular places we chose to visit, and our opinions on this particular night. Due to hours, locations time etc., I chose a mix of places which were mostly devoted to the tenderloin and others which specifically had a tenderloin on their menu.
First Stop: B&B Grocery
Tenderloin: Killer Tenderloin
B&B Grocery is a multi-generational family-run business located on the Southside of Des Moines, which has been in operation since 1922. Small family-run places like this intrigue me. I have no issue spending the day wandering around the city checking out mom-and-pop places to see what they have to offer. I have always intended to visitB&B, but I just never got over to check it out, well, until I was researching places to visit for this “tenderloin crawl.” I knew this place had to be one of them.
Famous for their self-proclaimed “killer” sandwiches. B&B is a butcher/deli/grocery store mixed all into one. Located on the corner of SE 6th and Hartford Ave. They have one of the biggest tenderloins in the city. Hand-pounded and freshly fried while you wait. As soon as I walked in the door, the staff greeted me and were quick to fill me in about their specials. John, one of the owners was a very nice guy and he answered all of my questions about their tenderloins. He even filled me in on Andrew Zimmern’s recent Bizarre Foods America visit to B&B while filming the Iowa episode which aired this spring. I ordered one “killer tenderloin” with the fixings (ketchup, mustard, onion) to go. I had to get it to go, because this mom-and-pop place closed it’s doors at 6pm. This was the only place we were not able to eat the food in the restaurant. Needless to say, it was a very quick trip home as I had 7 hungry crawlers ready do devour their first tenderloin while it was hot.
Our Thoughts: B&B’s Killer Tenderloin was impressive. It was the biggest one on the crawl. We would have liked to eat it in the store, but our schedule and hours made that not possible.
Tenderloin Crawl Rank: 4th Place
PROS: light breading, crunchy, soft bun, big tenderloin, great flavor, delicious breading, liked the addition of the pickles and the onions, tenderloin smelled like french fries, breading was great.
CONS: bun was almost soggy from the packaging, unable to go to the restaurant to enjoy.
TIPS: Get there early! They are only open until 6pm. Huge sandwiches, big menu, and great friendly service.
Next Stop: Jim’s Coney Island
Located on SW 9th in Des Moines, Jim’s Coney Island is a place many Southsiders go for a burger, hot dogs, or a tenderloin. You can get your fix for many fried foods. The place is decent sized and you are immediately seeing all of the action in the kitchen as you walk in the front door. They mean business when you are ordering here, they are quick to take your order, collect, and fill your drinks. We chose to sit in back by the bar and take in all of the stuffed wildlife and Schmidt Beer signs.
Our Thoughts: Jim’s Tenderloin left something to be desired for us. It really didn’t have much crunch or flavor. It tasted heavily-breaded with not much meat. They serve beer on tap, that was a plus.
Tenderloin Crawl Rank: 6th Place
PROS: cheese curds were good, quick service, needed extra mustard to eat.
CONS: tasted like flour, one person could not finish their tenderloin, gummy flour texture, chewy tire, dry tenderloin.
TIPS: Stick with the coney’s or burgers… Great place to view some taxidermy while eating.
Next Stop: Smitty’s
Tenderloin: Large King Loin
Smitty’s Original Tenderloins since 1952! This place is another institution here in Des Moines. Usually when you ask someone where to get a tenderloin, most of the time this is the place they will mention. Located on Army Post Road on the Southside of Des Moines. We stopped in here to see what all the fuss was about…
The staff was quick to pull a table together for our group and to educate us on the menu items. We ordered a large king loin that they were nice enough to cut up and put on two buns for us. Still not as big of a tenderloin as others, but enough to give 8 people a few bites. We ordered a side of mushrooms and some fries to accompany our tasting along with some Millstream Orange Cream Soda on tap. Yum!
Our Thoughts: Wonderful service here, the staff was very nice and accomdating of our large group. The tenderloins were good, but the native Des Moiners in the group said they used to be a lot better…
Tenderloin Crawl Rank: 5th Place
PROS: good flavor, meat was thicker than others, tasty, good food, cute place, great service, great side orders
CONS: breading was nothing special, too much onion, not enough condiments
TIPS: This place is small and cute. If you are coming during the rush, prepare to wait or grab a counter seat. Millstream Root Beer, Cream Soda, and Dreamsicle on tap. Very friendly staff.
Next Stop: Kelly’s Little Nipper
There has been a buzz around the city about the food at this East Grand watering hole. It was not until recently that I have discovered the hidden gems located on Grand East of 14th street, but this is now one of them. Initially, I have to admit it was a bit intimidating going into this place. On the outside it is a little rough and looked like a biker bar. On the inside it is still a little rough and perhaps a biker bar. Regardless, it didn’t matter. We were here to see what kind of tenderloin this place has to offer.
Our Thoughts: The tenderloin was served hot on a crusty, grilled french-style bread with a bit of lettuce and tomato. Cheap beer, lots of food options served up hot and fresh. We managed to score the big table when you walk in the door. This place is little, there is not a lot of seating options. Probably not the best place to bring a big group of people, but we made it work just fine. We even were lucky enough to get to hear some good live music.
Tenderloin Crawl Rank: 3rd Place
PROS: tasty, think onions, grilled bread, crispy tenderloin, the bun made the sandwich, great grill on bun, dive bar ambiance, best bread, tenderloin tasted great on the bread, live music, great service.
CONS: greasy so didn’t finish, horrible presentation, tenderloin was good, but the bun made the sandwich, tiny bar
TIPS: Don’t be scared! Just go, a great greasy spoon to fill up your belly and have a few beers while listening to live music. Dig out that old heavy metal or harley t-shirt and head on over for an Old Style.
Next Stop: Irina’s
Tenderloin: Pork Tenderloin
We wanted to do some classic tenderloin places and some not so classic. Irina’s was one of the places which may not necessarily be known for their tenderloins, but does a good job holding their own when it comes to making one.
Our Thoughts: Irina’s was a great place to end our Tenderloin Crawl. They have a great bar, great food, and great beer and cocktails. Their staff is informative and try to ensure your needs are being met at every interaction. Irina herself still comes around to check on your table and ensure you are having a good time. They have a great selection of beers imported from Russia. They were also very slick about convincing our party we needed vodka shots with a rye bread and pickle chaser.
Tenderloin Crawl Rank: 2nd Place
PROS: a bit chewy, seasoned nicely, high quality, amazing rosemary garlic potato side, bun was great, tenderloin you could see it was pork, best tenderloin meat
CONS: a bit heavy on the breading, chewy meat
TIPS: Great place for cocktails. Friendly service. They really interact with your group and provide suggestions on their Russian beer and vodka.
Stop: Mr. Bibbs
Tenderloin: Large Tenderloin
This was the first brick and mortar stop with the group. Upon arrival we were greeted warmly by a 30 year veteran employee. She was very passionate about the food they offered. She was kind about the competitors, but she was the advocate that Mr. Bibbs was the best. While we were pondering our order, she was quick to show us an article that was written about the restaurant last year in Saveur Magazine.
I actually did not know about the Saveur Magazine article or what it included until I started to write this blog post. At the time of this blog post, I still haven’t read it. Apparently they did a piece on Road Food and Mr. Bibbs was the feature. In my Google searching, I also found out that the article was up for a James Beard Award. Unfortunately, the article did not win, but the food here does…
Our Thoughts: This tenderloin stood out when it came to the look and texture of the meat. Crispy, crunchy, with a perfect golden brown texture. The pork was tender, juicy, and you could tell you were actually eating pork. The bun was soft, fresh, and the condiments accentuated the overall taste experience. The staff was very friendly and the onion rings were out of this world. Fresh, hot, hand-breaded, and crispy. They make my mouth water now thinking about them. The place itself shows its age a bit, it is a bit of a dive, but it has character. You cannot argue with the tenderloins they are serving here… Yum!
Tenderloin Crawl Rank: 1st Place
PROS: hand-breaded tenderloin, crisp breading, hot and fresh, awesome, crispy, friendly staff, great meat, good crunch, breading was outstanding, crispy and awesome onion rings, Des Moines institution
CONS: there were some ants on the floor by the window where we were sitting.
TIPS: Ask to see the Saveur Magazine articles or see pictures of what they overcame during the 1993 floods. Stop in for friendly welcoming staff, a great tenderloin, and amazing onion rings.
Still wondering “what is a kybo”? Google it. Trust me, it is not anything special.
Until the next food crawl…