Exploring Denver's Tenderloin District for a Midwestern Pork Sandwich

There’s been a growing call in recent years to stop using the word “ethnic,” especially in food writing. The basic argument is that the word has come to mean anything non-white or to imply that food from other cultures should be cheap and served from hole-in-the-wall joints with little regard for presentation or decor. And I agree, especially when “ethnic” is used simply as a vague descriptor — “Let’s go out for ethnic food tonight,” for example — that’s been stripped of meaning and is somehow subtly derogatory. When diners complain that they’re paying too much when they go to a new, upscale Thai or Indian restaurant in a trendy part of town because their favorite strip-mall noodle house only charges half as much, the implications become even more charged.

But it’s not the word’s fault that people load on all kinds of additional baggage. Most words, when used to make sweeping generalizations, cease to perform their intended function. When used with care, though, “ethnic” or “ethnicity” can help us understand the culture, traditions and foods of other peoples. When we think of Thai restaurants, we have a certain expectation of a handful of colorful dishes that appear on every menu around town. The word “ethnic” doesn’t have much use in this context, but when you consider that there are more than fifty distinct ethnic groups within Thailand’s borders, you begin to realize that maybe there’s more to learn — and there’s certainly more to eat than three kinds of curry and a plate of noodles.

So can we talk about Americans in terms of ethnic groups? Are Brooklynites distinctive enough from Virginians to be considered separate ethnicities? The idea seems absurd (and probably pretty unscientific), but different pockets of our country have certainly evolved over the past couple of centuries into groups with distinct regional accents, ways of life and culinary preferences. Just ask a New Yorker and a Bostonian about chowder and step back from what might quickly devolve from a discussion into a bare-knuckle brawl.
Then you have Midwesterners. It’s unlikely that talking about an entire geographical swath from North Dakota to Ohio as one homogeneous population will win you friends from either Bismarck or Cleveland. But Denver has become a new home to many Midwesterners, and restaurant owners are rolling out menus to attract Michiganders, Minnesotans and Indianians alike with favorite dishes that have, up until recently, been pretty rare in Colorado.

Take the pork tenderloin sandwich, for example. Most native Coloradans will just give you a quizzical look at the mention of this favorite of residents of Indiana and Iowa (and other states where pork is a major commodity); we know what pork tenderloin is, and we certainly know what a sandwich is, but how exactly do the two come together into a handheld meal worthy of recognition as a regional specialty?

To find out, head to the new Midwestern Saloon, which opened just a few weeks ago at 3961 Tennyson Street and serves a menu of favorites for displaced Midwesterners from the Upper Peninsula to the Windy City. You’ll find Wisconsin cheese curds and brats, a Chicago-style hot dog and a walleye sandwich for Minnesotans. There’s also an Iowa pork tenderloin sandwich, made with a pounded, breaded and fried pork cutlet served on a bun with pickles, caramelized onions, housemade mayonnaise and slices of jalapeño (because we’re in the West now).

The pork tenderloin sandwich is really nothing more than schnitzel on bread, so its origin could easily be attributed to an industrious German immigrant who was too impatient to wait for his schnitzel to cool and just picked it up with a sliced-open dinner roll. And maybe that happened, but as a commercial product, Nick’s Kitchen, opened by Nick Freienstein in 1908 in Huntington, Indiana, lays claim as the first restaurant to sell the sandwiches, and the eatery still makes them according to Freienstein’s original recipe.

The Midwestern Saloon’s take is a classic example; the pork tenderloin is pounded thin as a dollar bill before being dredged in a saltine-cracker coating and fried until crisp. It’s an enormous cutlet, more than twice the size of its bun, which looks ridiculous perched atop the wavy, golden-fried monstrosity like a little bowler hat.

When the bartender asked if I needed anything else with my meal, I said “Yes: some advice on how to eat this thing.” She was kind enough to oblige, saying that her preferred method was to trim away pieces of tenderloin with a knife and eat them as an appetizer before picking up the sandwich, now reduced to a manageable circumference. It was good advice, so I took it. She also said that I was the first person she’d seen who actually finished the entire Frisbee-sized construction.
Presaging the most recent wave of Denver growth, Midwesterners Aaron, Lucas and Jason Forgy opened Freshcraft at 1530 Blake Street in 2010, serving the food of their people along with a long list of beers. The pork tenderloin sandwich here is a little more demure than the one at the Midwestern, but the crust is made with herbs and cheese, and the cutlet is topped with smoked-onion ketchup, giving the sandwich a touch of campfire flavor and cheesy ooze. The meat isn’t pounded quite as thin, but it’s tender enough for easy eating.

Iowa boy Justin Brunson also added a pork tenderloin sandwich to his repertoire when he opened Masterpiece Kitchen at 84 Rampart Road in Lowry at the beginning of March. His is also of a handheld size, poking out only slightly from its squishy potato bun, and also sports a cracker crust for a good crunch. Like the other two, pickle slices are a must for the hit of acidity that cuts through the fried meat and breading. Brunson says the sandwiches are just part of life in his home state. “Every little town has a tavern, and every tavern has a pork tenderloin sandwich,” he recalls. His favorite was from Joensy’s, in the tiny town of Solon.

“Back home, those farm kids eat big,” he adds. So what may be intimidating to a Denverite is just another plate-sized tenderloin in Iowa.

We’ve all come to expect regional fare from Denver’s destination for pan-American cooking, Steuben’s Food Service, so the kitchen would be remiss if it didn’t cook up this Midwest specialty. It’s currently only offered as the Tuesday sandwich special at the original spot at 523 East 17th Avenue, but pork fans would be in hog heaven if the sandwich makes it to the new Arvada Steuben’s when it rolls out its daily sandwich board.

Next time you’re sitting at home trying to think of where to go for dinner and your companion says, “I’m craving something ethnic,” instead of chastising them for political incorrectness, just think about our Midwestern compatriots and reply, “You betcha — a pork tenderloin sandwich sounds great!”
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Mark Antonation is the former Westword Food & Drink Editor. In 2018, he was named Outstanding Media Professional by the Colorado Restaurant Association; he's now with the Colorado Restaurant Foundation.
Contact: Mark Antonation