The state of Indiana has given exactly two culinary gifts to the rest of the world. One of them is Wonder Bread, which some of us Hoosiers are apologetic about. But the other one is our hubcap-sized offering to the bar food gods: the fried pork tenderloin sandwich.
In theory, it’s simple. Take a chunk of pork tenderloin, pound it flat, batter and fry it and put it on a bun with some onions, pickles and mayo. Not much to it. But in Indiana and some other Midwestern states like Iowa, a sort of arms race has developed to see who can serve the widest, most comically huge piece of pork on an ordinary-sized bun. Sometimes the result looks like a sandwich. Sometimes it looks like a slab of meat levitating an inch above the table.
As an Indiana-born boy, I am duty-bound to inform you that Dallas finally has its own fried pork tenderloin sandwich. And it is spectacular, probably the best example south of the Ohio River. It’s so eye-catching, so good and so inventive that, like certain elite sandwiches at spots like Jimmy’s, it deserves to be a local landmark that tourists take selfies with.
This new sandwich arrival is at Ye Olde Scarlet Pumpernickel Tavern, a bar that's named after a Daffy Duck cartoon and is not something I just made up, and also a bar which could just take down the sign over its door and hang a sandwich over the sidewalk instead.
The key to success, perhaps surprisingly, is that chef Brian Valdez has never had a fried pork tenderloin before. He’s seen pictures and heard about the dish from Scarlet Pumpernickel owner Adam Salazar, but the two of them invented their own recipe from scratch, unbound by any loyalty to Hoosier tradition.
“When we got back from the shutdown, we had this idea because we were going to start doing blue plate specials, and do regional dishes that people would only know if they were from there,” Valdez says. “We did Skyline Chili, with all the cheese on top. We did the diablo sandwich from California. We’re doing cheesesteaks now. It was a mix of that and, the fad right now going on is the chicken sandwich. So we said, how do we do something that’s like a chicken sandwich, but goes along with our theme?”
The result is a 6-ounce chunk of pork that’s rolled out and then dunked in a spicy chile pepper brine, which further tenderizes the meat, gives it a gently rosy color and adds spice that builds slowly as you devour. Valdez and his crew bulk up their batter with oyster crackers, giving the exterior a magical soft crunch. I know “soft crunch” sounds oxymoronic, but how else can you describe an enormous batter that shatters one tiny layer at a time? Just take a bite and listen to the symphonic sound effects.
This pork tenderloin comes in a regular or spicy version. Indiana doesn’t do a spicy version or a spicy pepper brine. Give them a break. They’re Midwesterners.
“The spicy version is we change the mayo up,” Valdez explains. “So it’s a mayo made with pequin chile peppers. Halfway through the sandwich, you realize, oh man, it’s getting spicy.”
If Nashville hot chicken can take off and become an all-consuming fad, why can’t Hoosier fried pork? Midwesterners will see this article and immediately dash off to Ye Olde Scarlet Pumpernickel. The rest of you should follow them. I know it’s not often that we look to America’s cornfields for culinary trends, but don’t take it from me. Take it from people like Valdez, who’d never encountered the sandwich before.
“People get it, they look at it, they’re like, whoa, what the ... ?” he says. “It barely fits in the to-go box. But there’s one guy who comes in and gets it two or three times a week. People who’ve never seen it before, when it gets put in front of them, we get to talk about it. We get to tell them what the food is and where it came from. That’s what makes a good tavern to me.”
Me, too. I probably cannot have this masterpiece three times a week. Twice sounds doable.
Ye Olde Scarlet Pumpernickel Tavern, 1402 Main St., 4 p.m. to midnight, Monday - Thursday, 4 p.m. to 2 a.m. Friday, noon to 2 a.m. Saturday and 1 p.m. to 10 p.m. Sunday
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