Selecting Iowa's Best Breaded Pork Tenderloin
By Ann Thelen
Take a behind-the-scenes look at how Iowa Pork selects Iowa’s Best Breaded Pork Tenderloin each year. Trust us, this badge of honor is a game changer!
Breaded pork tenderloin lovers rejoice, the announcement you’ve waited for all year has arrived. In celebration of National Pork Month, the Iowa Pork Producers Association has crowned its 2019 Iowa’s Best Breaded Pork Tenderloin champion. Drumroll, please… the winner is The Pub at the Pinicon in New Hampton!
Simply abbreviated as “The P.T.,” the sandwich starts with a center-cut, half-pound pork loin —the same piece of meat that’s used for The Pub’s top-selling Boneless Iowa Chop dinner entrée. Loins are injected with their natural juices to enhance moisture, then hand-cut, coated in seasoned flour, dipped in a milk and egg wash, breaded with seasoned panko crumbs and fried.
Current owners Dale and Laura Reicks of New Hampton source all the restaurant’s pork from Reicks View Farms in Lawler, a family farm they founded in 1979. In addition to pork tenderloins and chops, Reicks View Farms supplies The Pub’s bacon, ribs and sausage pizza topping.
Phil Zwanziger, a native of Nashua, has been involved with the business for almost 30 years and says the pork tenderloin has long been a popular menu item. Staff has modified the breading over the years, and about a year ago, moved to a brioche bun instead of a hoagie style.
This winning sandwich meets the highest standards for breading, consistency in thickness, and the bun, condiments and seasonings. It’s all about the eating experience, and this is Iowa’s latest masterpiece.
With 5,390 nominations, the task of determining the winner is bigger than the plate and bun needed to showcase the tenderloin!
To celebrate the competition, the Iowa Food & Family Project (Iowa FFP) sat down with Kelsey Sutter, marketing and programs director at Iowa Pork, for a behind-the-scenes look at how Iowa’s pork royalty is crowned.
Iowa FFP: Let’s start with the basics. How did the contest start?
Sutter: The contest started in 2003 as a way to celebrate a Midwest staple, pig farmers and the state’s wonderful restaurants. We have a restaurant committee at Iowa Pork, which is a mix of pork producers, restaurant and foodservice professionals, and chefs. It was this committee’s brainchild to create the contest and have it coincide with National Pork Month.
Many people may not realize that pork tenderloin sandwiches are unique to our region. The sandwich is a delicacy that’s not available across the country. With Iowa being No. 1 in the nation in pork production, we know that breaded pork tenderloins are something special. People drive hundreds of miles to get their hands on a winning sandwich.
Iowa FFP: How does the nomination process work?
Sutter: Any establishment in Iowa that serves a breaded pork tenderloin is eligible to be nominated. During the spring nomination process, individuals go to Iowa Pork’s website and make a nomination. This year, we received 5,390 nominations for 470 different establishments. Those numbers are up significantly from the 1,600 nominations in 2018. We made improvements to simplify the nomination process this year, and we’re thrilled that it resulted in more tenderloin enthusiasm from loyal fans across the state.
Iowa FFP: With thousands of nominations, how are they narrowed down? Does someone have the tasty task of sampling all the tenderloins?
Sutter: That would be a terrific job! Round 1 is strictly a popularity contest. At Iowa Pork, we have eight districts. We take the Top 5 – determined by the number of nominations each establishment receives – in each region. Those 40 establishments advance to the next round and judging officially begins. Whether it’s a small-town pub or a restaurant in a metro area, with this method everyone has an equal opportunity to win. Forty pig producers are then assigned to visit an establishment and score each tenderloin according to a points system. Based on those results, the overall Top 5 are named and a panel of three judges (a pork producer, chef and member of the media) visit all five locations and select the winner.
Iowa FFP: Who were the Top 5 nominees for 2019?
Sutter: Big Al’s BBQ in Des Moines; Night Hawk Bar & Grill in Slater; The Pub at the Pinicon in New Hampton; Stumble Inn in Bradford; and West Side Family Restaurant in Grinnell.
Iowa FFP: What are the judges looking for in selecting the Best Breaded Pork Tenderloin?
Sutter: First and foremost, we want the quality of the pork to shine through – not just the breading or toppings. The pork is the star of the show. The breading, seasonings, condiments and bun must be complementary in creating a great eating experience. The pork needs to be a thick piece of tenderloin that has been pounded thin – and consistently across the sandwich. We’re also looking for it to be juicy, flavorful, a good color and cooked properly. The quality of the pork constitutes 50% of the overall score, so it needs to be exceptional. The breading must be crunchy and not greasy. The bun should enhance the dining experience but not upstage or detract from the pork.
Iowa FFP: What impact does winning have on the establishment?
Sutter: The business is forever changed, and there is a tsunami of patrons who flock to the establishment. Because they have earned their place on Iowa’s tenderloin map, they become a destination. We love the impact it has on increasing sales for the winner, and it also has a cascading economic impact on the community.
The sales data is phenomenal. For example, before winning the contest, one establishment used to go through two cases of pork a week. At the height of being a winning breaded pork tenderloin destination, they were going through 14 to 15 cases a week. To this day, they still sell six to seven cases a week – it tripled their business for breaded pork tenderloin sales.
Iowa FFP: How many tenderloins have you eaten since overseeing this contest?
Sutter: Too many delicious ones to count! I love to visit every location after they have won and check in.
Iowa FFP: Where can pork tenderloin lovers find more information?
Sutter: Follow @IowaPork on social media and visit www.iowapork.com. On our website, download the Tenderloin Trail map for a tasty road trip. And start thinking about who you will nominate in the race to be the 2020 champion!