The Iowa Pork Producers Association annually awards a restaurant across the state for having the best pork tenderloin sandwich. This year's winner is Gramma's Kitchen along Interstate 80 north of Walcott, IA, at Exit 284, just west of the Quad Cities (see map). We'd been to Gramma's in the past (it's been around since 1980), but had never gotten the pork tenderloin sandwich. I had returned home after a long trip and Cindy wasn't up for making anything at home that evening (she was suffering from a cold), so I suggested we'd go out to Gramma's Kitchen and give their tenderloin a try.
Gramma's Kitchen is part of the Heart of America group of restaurants and hotels run by Quad Cities native Mike Whalen and includes The Machine Shed family style restaurants with six locations, Thunder Bay Grille in Davenport, Rockford and Pewaukee, WI, and Johnny's Italian Steakhouse with six locations (soon to be seven). You can click here to see my entry on the Johnny's Italian Steakhouse in West Des Moines. Gramma's Kitchen is the only stand alone restaurant of the Heart of America empire that stretches across six states in the Midwest.
I've eaten at - and shared on Road Tips - the past three winners of the Iowa Pork Producers Best Tenderloin contest. They are the 2008 winner Augusta in Oxford, IA; 2009 winner Goldie's Drive Inn in Prairie City, IA; and 2010 winner Buck's Bar in Mitchellville, IA. (Buck's Bar closed up earlier this year.) While I usually don't go out of my way to experience pork tenderloin sandwiches like I do with burger joints, if I come across one that I've heard is pretty good, I'll stop. Thankfully, Gramma's Kitchen is only 15 minutes from our home.
We entered Gramma's Kitchen around 7 p.m. that evening and it was far from packed. Although the parking lot was over half full, many of the people who drove - or who walked over from the Iowa 80 truck stop (the World's Largest Truck Stop) - were in the attached Checkered Flag Bar and Grill. We were immediately greeted by a hostess, then escorted through the gift shop area (similar to the gift shops you find at the Machine Shed restaurants) and seated in a booth in the spacious and well-lit dining area.
Our waiter for the evening, Eric, was young guy who was very friendly and was overly attentive. He apologized for not coming around sooner (he was busy with other tables and it was less than five minutes after we were seated). And by that time we were ready to order.
Most of the food on the dinner menu at Gramma's Kitchen is comfort food, but you can get steaks and some seafood at the place. Actually, since Cindy was suffering from a cold, she almost got the Chicken Pot Pie, one of the king comfort food dishes you can find. But at the last moment, she went with the battered pork tenderloin sandwich with a side of cole slaw. (Grilled pork tenderloin sandwiches are available, as well. Make sure you know which one you're ordering when you order a pork tenderloin sandwich.)
I, too, went with the battered pork tenderloin with a side of fries. And for good measure, I asked Eric if I could get a side of gravy for the fries. He said, "Sure! What kind of gravy? Breakfast gravy, turkey gravy, pork..."
I told him beef gravy and he said, "You bet!"
It took about 15 minutes for the pork tenderloins to come out to us. The pork tenderloins start out as 1/4 pound pork loins, slightly pounded out, then dipped in an egg and flour batter, then deep-fried to a deep golden brown color. The best thing about the pork loins at Gramma's Kitchen is the term "slightly pounded out". Some places that feature pork tenderloin sandwiches pound the living shit out of the loin and they end up being large and flat. That also takes the moisture out of the tenderloin making it dry. The second best thing about the pork tenderloin sandwiches at Gramma's is that they're battered - not breaded. I'll eat a breaded tenderloin, but - to me - it's not as good a deep-fried, battered tenderloin.
Cindy's pork tenderloin sandwich (above right) was a little larger than mine. The tenderloin stuck out a bit from the toasted bun, but not so much like you find at other places. The only problem I had was that there weren't enough pickles. Only one long pickle slice came with the sandwich. Eric came back with my drink and I asked him for some more pickle slices. He brought out a plate with about 10 pickle slices. He said, "We try to do everything big here at Gramma's Kitchen."
The pork tenderloins were thick, juicy and very good. The batter was a little salty in taste (then again, I hardly salt anything), but it was still very good with the pork loin. I had contemplated getting just one and splitting it. But as it turned out, we were both hungry - Cindy was especially hungry as she hadn't been eating well because of her cold - and I made very short work with my tenderloin, along with the fries and much of the gravy. Cindy dawdled a bit, but she was able to eat all but a couple three bites of her sandwich. She said, "Yeah, that was great! I guess I was a lot more hungry than I thought!"
For their winning this year's best pork tenderloin sandwich, Gramma's Kitchen was given a plaque and a $500 dollar check from the Iowa Pork Producers Association. When Eric came back to get our dishes, he asked, "Well, how was it?"
I told him, "You guys are much better than the last two winners (Goldie's and Buck's). But I'm not certain that you're as good as the one over in Oxford that won three years ago. It's close, but I'd have to go back there to see for sure. And it certainly gives the one up at TC's Point After in DeWitt a run for the money. That's a very good one, too."
But all that's not to say the pork tenderloin from Gramma's Kitchen isn't good. It's very worthy of its standing as the best pork tenderloin sandwich in Iowa for 2011. Even though the plaque says "Best Breaded Tenderloin Sandwich", it's the batter on the pork tenderloin at Gramma's Kitchen that makes the difference.