The state of Iowa is nationally known for having some of the best breaded pork tenderloin sandwiches on the face of the earth. Now, I have to say that I'm not a big fan of these type of pork sandwiches. But on the recommendation of my local, yet long distance friend, Burt Gearhart, he told me that I had to try one at Augusta in Oxford, IA.
Oxford is a small town west of Iowa City, southwest of Cedar Rapids and just to the east of the famous Amana Colonies (see map). Oxford is a small, non-descript town that reminds me tremendously of my hometown of Kellogg, IA. There's not much to the town. I didn't exactly know where Augusta was in town, but I figured it had to be in the small downtown area of Oxford. After coming off the interstate and taking the trip north to Oxford, I easily found Augusta (see map).
Ben and Jeri Halperin were living in New Orleans as Ben was working as a chef in some restaurants down there. Hurricane Katrina pushed Ben and Jeri up to Chicago where Ben worked in a number of restaurants, not finding a particular one that he liked to work for. When a friend in Oxford told them that a local restaurant was closing it's doors, Ben and Jeri went out to Oxford to inquire about renting the building. It turned out the rent was reasonable and after some clean-up and refurbishing, Ben, Jeri and a partner, Nathan Ruble opened a year ago. They named the restaurant Augusta after the street the restaurant is located on.
Ben wanted the restaurant to serve comfort food - Cajun style. Many items on their menu have a Cajun flair - po' boy sandwiches, crawfish beignets, chicken and andouille gumbo and cornmeal crusted catfish. They also feature steaks, roasted pork loin and chicken entrees.
Since 2003, the Iowa Pork Producers Association has handed out an award to the restaurant who has the best breaded pork tenderloin sandwich in the state. The IPPA focuses more on small family style restaurants and taverns across the state. Restaurants have to be nominated by two different people and the IPPA officials go out and try the sandwiches. The winning restaurant receives a plaque of recognition and a $500 dollar check.
And it also brings in a lot of business. Since the Town House Supper Club in Wellsburg, IA won the award in 2006, they've served nearly 30,000 of their famous breaded pork loin sandwich. Other winners include:
2004 - Suburban Restaurant - Gilbert, IA (Actually, it's at the intersection of Highway 69 and a county road that takes you into Gilbert.)
2005 - Dairy Sweet - Dunlap, IA (I used to travel between Omaha and Carroll, IA on Highway 30 quite a bit, years ago. I know I had to pass the Dairy Sweet on each of those trips.)
2007 - Larsen's Pub - Elk Horn, IA (I've been in Elk Horn on a few occasions. Would have never thought any place in that town would have a good tenderloin.)
I had a meeting in Cedar Rapids recently and I decided to make a side trip to Oxford to have lunch at Augusta. I walked in and I was the only person in the restaurant, other than a couple of insurance guys talking to Ben Halperin. Jeri Halperin greeted me and told me that I could sit anywhere. I took a table toward the front and got a menu from her.
When Burt visited Augusta last fall, he took along his camera and took a few snapshots of the place. He sent them out to some friends to show them the place and the delectable sandwich he got. Here's a picture Burt took of the inside of Augusta. The tables are topped with table cloths and then a fresh square paper is placed on top of the table cloth each time a table is turned. There's a small bar that seats two or three people. They have six beers on tap, including some Goose Island varieties.
There's not a lot on the menu for lunch items - a burger, a Cajun-style Po' Boy with your choice of catfish, shrimp or roast beef, and a grilled chicken club in addition to the pork loin sandwich. They feature salads and a kids menu. But I was in for the tenderloin, which comes with homemade dill pickles, homemade mayo and topped with lettuce, tomato and onions. You have your choice of either hand-cut french fries or homemade sweet potato chips. I ordered up a tenderloin with fries. The waitress asked, "Have you ever had the sandwich before?"
I said, "This is my first time here. Heck, I went to school in Iowa City for five years and this is my first time ever in Oxford."
She said, "Oh, you're going to love this sandwich."
I waited for about 15 minutes on my sandwich and the waitress brought it out with a side of ketchup in a small container. Looking back, I should have gotten a small container of their homemade mayonnaise to dip my fries into. (That's something I picked up from the Canadians, who, in turn, probably picked it up from the Europeans. They don't put ketchup on french fries.)
This is just about what my sandwich looked like when it was served to me, only Burt got his with the homemade sweet potato chips. The pork loin was thick and the buttermilk breaded batter around the loin was light, flaky and flavorful.
The problem I have with a lot of these breaded pork tenderloin sandwiches is that they take a 12 to 14 ounce, pound the piss out of it, bread it and then deep fry it. And they're usually too big. I read somewhere that a true Iowa breaded pork tenderloin had to be three times the size of the bun that is served with it. Well, the pork tenderloin at Augusta certainly achieved that. And the breading is usually pretty rich and it's tough to eat the whole sandwich in one sitting. It's never as good if you take it home and heat it up. So a lot of it gets wasted. And I hate to waste food, especially when it's good.
One other thing that Augusta has going for it, they do their own breaded tenderloins. I've eaten at restaurants where they have pre-made breaded pork tenderloins and they're usually frozen in advance. But Augusta's pork tenderloin was definitely pounded out by hand (I could hear them pounding it out in the kitchen) and they have their own breading recipe. Even though the pork loin was pounded out, it was still pretty thick. I would have liked to have seen the pork loin before they started to work on it.
Bottom line - the sandwich was very good. I didn't care for the mayo on it - even though the mayo was very good - and I didn't use the tomato or lettuce. A true pork tenderloin is topped with only pickles, onions and mustard.
As I was paying for my meal, I got to talking to Jeri Halperin. She was giving me some of the background on the restaurant and how they ended up in Oxford, IA. It turned out that Jeri was a native Iowan, growing up in far NE Iowa in Clayton County, before she left to go find the world. We agreed that while places like New Orleans and Chicago are great places to visit, Iowa is definitely home.
The pork loin sandwich at Augusta was everything that it was advertised to be. It was a little expensive - $9.00 with fries - but it was worth it. Every restaurant says they have the best pork tenderloin, but Augusta can really back up their claim. Augusta is closed on Monday's and Tuesday's, so if you go, make a note of that. I really want to go back and try the roast beef Po' Boy sandwich sometime. I'm hoping that with Ben Halperin's New Orleans background it will taste as good as the ones I had at Mother's in New Orleans years ago.