In the Germanic Midwest, a pounded pork tenderloin sandwich is a staple, if not a delicacy. Now this Iowa classic is a menu favorite at Diamond Station in the Highlands.
“Pork tenderloins are everywhere in Iowa,” says John Packwood, co-owner of the pub. “It’s tenderloin they pound out, then bread it and fry it. I mean, you can get them anywhere. The thing that makes it unique is it’s a very big piece of meat and a small bun.”
Packwood says it is typically served with pickle slices, onions and yellow mustard, which is the way it is served at Diamond Station. Some people put ketchup on pork tenderloins, which is available upon request, and some versions will include mayonnaise and other toppings.
So serious are Iowans about their pork tenderloin sandwiches that the Iowa Pork Producers Association holds an annual contest to decide the best in the state. (Three C’s Diner in Des Moines captured the honor in 2018.)
The story behind how the pork tenderloin came to Diamond Station is pretty simple, if somewhat remarkable: Packwood is a native of Fort Dodge, Iowa, which is about 100 miles north of Des Moines.
A Louisville resident named Joe Sullivan also is from that Iowa town — the two never met until both were living in Louisville — and the pair decided to meet at a bar to do some “game watches” to cheer on the Iowa State University Cyclones football team.
Other Iowa State fans began to join in on the game watches, which at the time were taking place at a location outside the Gene Snyder circle. But when Packwood and business partner Kyle Llewellyn bought Diamond Station in May 2017, Packwood decided to move the game watches there.
Through that, Diamond Station became sort of the unofficial home of Cyclones football in Louisville and now is a draw for a dozen or so fans for each game.
It so happened that back in 2017, a couple of Iowa State fans had just moved to town. They learned about the game watches, joined in, and at some point, probably over wings or burgers, talk turned to the classic Iowa pork tenderloins.
“One day, somebody said, ‘You should do some pork tenderloin sandwiches,’ ” Packwood says. “I said, ‘You bring the pork, and I’ll make the sandwiches.’”
So, they literally brought in a pork loin for Packwood to convert into the Iowa classic sandwiches, and they were a hit.
“Everybody loved them,” Packwood says, “so we started doing them for all the games.”
But the story doesn’t end there.
One day, a Diamond Station neighborhood regular was at the bar during an Iowa State game.
“He said, ‘I want one of those Iowa burgers,’” Packwood says. And with that, Packwood and Llewellyn decided to put the sandwich on the menu permanently as The Iowa Burger.
“It really kind of took off,” Packwood says, and it’s been a menu staple ever since. “We were making fun of the guy, but it was actually kind of cool. We’ve been serving them ever since. People love ’em.”
The sandwich is as advertised — an almost stupidly big piece of pork on a little bitty hamburger bun, breaded and fried sort of like country fried steak. What choice do you have but to nibble away at the meaty edges until you get to the epicenter, where you’ll find the flavor splash of the mustard and the crunch of the single onion slice and three pickles?
I found myself leaning down to chomp away at the edges, as it was nearly impossible to pick up the sandwich without getting my hands in the mustard drizzle. The combination of the clean pork and the slightly salty breading were fine foils for the mustard, and the inner part of the sandwich is a fine payoff for all the work.
At one point, as I took pictures of the thing, someone commented that it was “as big as a hubcap.” Not quite, but nevertheless a worthy observation.
It bears noting that while Iowa claims the pork tenderloin as its own, there’s also a faction of northern Indiana folk who swear the iconic sandwich originated there, where it is called the Hoosier breaded pork tenderloin.
Nick’s Kitchen, a restaurant located in Huntington, Ind., is often cited as the place where it all started; there’s even a low-budget mini-documentary from the 1980s about the Hoosier version.
Regardless, Packwood says history may be on the verge of repeating itself, in a way. Why? Because there’s another sandwich that is hugely popular in the Hawkeye State.
“Now they want me to make Maid-Rites,” he says, referring to the Iowa-born, loose-meat sandwiches that first appeared in 1926 at the restaurant of the same name in Muscatine, a town nestled between Iowa City and Davenport. The sandwiches are made with seasoned ground beef and served on a bun, sometimes with toppings such as onions, pickles and cheese.
“They’re super un-fancy,” Packwood says. “It’s like a Manwich, but just not sweet-tasting. I’m probably going to do it next year for football.”
Packwood says he even has access to an original Iowa recipe for the loose-meat sandwiches. In the meantime, you can get a signature Iowa Burger at Diamond Station. Located at 2280 Bardstown Road, the pub is open 3 p.m. to midnight, Sunday through Wednesday, and 3 p.m. to 2 a.m., Thursday through Saturday.