The late Dave Tipton, who was a co-worker at Nixon Newspapers, contended the best way to judge a Chinese restaurant was by its shrimp in lobster sauce. If that dish is excellent, you’re game to try others. If not, you may be hesitant to come back.
Using Tipton’s reasoning, the best way for me to judge a down-home Indiana eatery is by its breaded tenderloin. The first time I eat in an independently owned restaurant, I order a loin with lettuce, tomato and mayo. If the sandwich is a winner, I’ll come back and order other meals. If not, probably not.
I ate my first breaded tenderloin in 1964, shortly after I arrived in Frankfort. I have been on the “Great Breaded Tenderloin Hunt” ever since.
I had come to Frankfort (population: 15,000) from Los Angeles (population: 2 million) to start my career in daily journalism as a reporter for the Morning Times.
On my second day in town, the sports editor took me to lunch at the Campus Castle, a cozy joint fewer than 100 yards from the back door of the newspaper.
The Campus Castle was nestled near the former high school. The sports editor told me the restaurant had been owned originally or at one time by Everett Case, the legendary Frankfort basketball coach who won four state championships.
The menu had something called a “California Burger,” so I was tempted to order that — out of curiosity, because despite having grown up in L.A., I’d never heard of a California burger.
“Oh, no, man, you have to order a breaded tenderloin,” the sports editor said, pointing to a picture of a humongous piece of meat hanging over a bun.
So I did, and he, too, opting for mustard, pickles and onions. As we ate, he talked about how the breaded tenderloin was unique to Indiana. A native Hoosier, he described how the pork patty is pounded into a thin cutlet, soaked, breaded in various ways and then deep fried.
I took my first bite and was hooked. The next day, I tried a loin dressed the way the sports editor ordered his. Loved it. And as the months and years rolled by, I tried other combinations of condiments and vegetables before settling on lettuce, tomato and mayo.
My favorite breaded tenderloin during my years in Peru was the hand-breaded beauty at the old Paramount on Third Street, which understood the key to a great loin: A juicy, crispy, crunchy patty stuffed between a soft bun and complemented with fresh veggies and condiments. The meat was not too thin. When it is, you wind up eating mostly breading, which makes the sandwich a loser, no matter how good the breading is.
When my older sister and her husband, who lived in Santa Barbara, visited my wife and me almost 20 years ago, we took them to the Paramount. My brother-in-law — who knew his way around a kitchen, had eaten in dozens of places around the world, and could be fussy when it came to food — took his first bite of a Paramount loin and broke out into a wide smile.
The next day, we took my sister and brother-in-law to Silver Lake to hunt for antiques. We stopped at a small place in the little town — the name escapes me — and he ordered the loin. The breading was different than the kind at the Paramount, and he ordered the loin with different condiments and veggies, but the sandwich was just as scrumptious.
Since being introduced to the breaded tenderloin, I’ve had hundreds in Hoosier burgs — North Manchester, Wabash, Huntington (Nick’s Kitchen, which claims to have invented the sandwich), Fort Wayne (I adore Durnell’s), Michigan City, Winamac, Culver, North Judson, Swayzee, Sweetser (the spelling might be wrong, but it was Kooch’s Kove), Indianapolis (Binkley’s), Bloomington (I favor The Office Lounge), Ellettsville, Brazil, Kokomo, Terre Haute, Kentland, Attica and my latest stop, Holt’s Café in Judah, a miniscule burg between Bloomington and Bedford. Yes!
Occasionally, while devouring a great loin in one of those places, I’d be reminded of William Herschell’s famous poem: “Ain’t God Good to Indiana?”
So what’s your favorite (or used-to-be favorite) place for a breaded tenderloin?
Ray Moscowitz of Bloomington is a retired newspaper executive and former publisher of the Peru Tribune. Contact him at email@example.com.