Since 2003, the Iowa Pork Producers Association has been searching for the best pork tenderloin sandwiches in the state. I've eaten at the winners of the 2008, 2009, 2010, 2011 and 2012 competition, but have the other past winners on my list to try if I ever got in their area. Just north of Interstate 80 in Western Iowa between Omaha and Des Moines is a small town by the name of Elk Horn. It's the home of Larsen's Pub, the 2007 winner of the best pork tenderloin in Iowa. On a drive back from Omaha a few weeks ago, I decided to stop in to Larsen's and give the tenderloin a try.
Now, I've been to Elk Horn a couple times in the past, but it's been a long, long time since I was last there. Elk Horn is a village deep in Danish heritage. Years ago when I was a regional representative for Bang and Olufsen audio and video equipment that's made in Denmark, I was contacted by the curator of the Danish Museum in Elk Horn to see if we would put some Bang and Olufsen products on display. She basically wanted Bang and Olufsen to install an audio system as a gift to the museum. When I explained that the American arm of Bang and Olufsen was not directly owned by B&O, and that we couldn't just *give* them an audio system, well, she got a little nasty with me. And when I came back with a price that was basically B&O America's landing cost of a system, she came unglued. (It was over $3000 bucks.) She basically threw me out of her office. That was in 1988 and it was my last visit to Elk Horn since then.
Neal Larsen and his wife, Brenda, grew up in Elk Horn before moving to Guthrie Center in 1997 for work. Neal's parents, Lynn and Doreen Larsen, had a catering business back in Elk Horn that Neal and Brenda would come back and help out during weekends. When Lynn and Doreen retired, they sold the business to Neal and Brenda.
Neal and Brenda Larsen ran their catering business out of an old retirement home building on Main Street in Elk Horn. When the building was sold in 2005, the Larsen's knew they had to move. Wanting to stay in Elk Horn, they found that the building that housed a sports bar that had gone out of business was up for sale. The Larsen's jumped at the chance to buy the building and they opened their doors in March of 2006.
It was Neal's brother who talked him into making a deep fried pork tenderloin sandwich and putting it on the menu. Someone nominated the Larsen Pub pork tenderloin for the best in Iowa in 2007 and they won. On the day they were awarded the best tenderloin, the 2006 winner, Terry Town from the Town House Supper Club in Wellsburg was on hand with Iowa Pork Producer representatives. Town asked Neal Larsen how many fryers he had and Larsen responded, "Just one. This table top fryer we have back in the kitchen."
Town told Larsen, "Oh, my gosh. You're gonna need five times the fryers now that you won the award. People are just gonna flock from all over to try your tenderloin." (Town House Supper Club sold 30,000 pork tenderloin sandwiches within the first couple years after they won the award in 2006.) Within a couple weeks, the Larsen's had three more fryers on hand to handle to multitudes of people who descended upon their little restaurant in Elk Horn.
Larsen's Pub is located on Main Street in Elk Horn. (see map) Main Street is Iowa state highway 173 that runs north from Interstate 80 and Larsen's is located just north of the intersection of Highway 173 and County Road F58 on the west side of the street. I pulled up in front of Larsen's Pub around 1:25 and walked to the door. Their hours said that they closed at 1:45, but reopened around 4:30.
I walked in and was greeted by Neal Larsen. The restaurant was empty and he was alone behind the bar. I asked if it was too late to get a sandwich and he said that he was going to close up in about 15 minutes, but he'd make me something. I said, "I hear your pork tenderloin is pretty good. I'll take one of them."
He said, "That won't take all that long." He asked if I wanted anything to drink in the meantime and I had him grab me a Bud Light that he had in the glass cooler behind the bar. I sat at the bar and waited for my sandwich.
In addition to their pork tenderloins, Larsen's pub also has burgers, chicken sandwiches, a couple deep fried fish plates and a "Danish" pork tenderloin where they had havarti cheese to the sandwich.
On the back of the menu, there was a list of things with the heading, "Remember, We Are A Little Place! If you're expecting a full service restaurant, you need to lower your expectations!" Then they went through a litany of rules that patrons had to follow at Larsen's Pub. It started off innocent enough - "May we suggest a Danish beer or frozen drink?" Then it went on to tell people that they Coke products and 1919 root beer on tap. Then it began to get heavy. "We charge for refills", "We charge $1.00 for split plates", "We don't use real plates", and "We don't have lemon for your water" were just a few of the lines of the missive on the back of the menu. At the bottom, it basically said, "There's just two of us here most of the time. These are the answers to the questions we get most. We hope you got a chuckle out of reading this and enjoy your meal!" I could see where some people would take as a heavy handed attempt at humor, but it was actually kind of funny to me.
Neal Larsen came out of the kitchen and asked me where I was from and I told him Davenport. He said, "Wow, that's a long way from here." When I explained that I was on my way home from Omaha and had wanted to stop in for a long time to try his tenderloin versus some of the other winners, he said, "Oh, well. That's great. I'll be interested to hear how ours stacks up against the others."
He brought out the tenderloin. It was big and thick, had a nice layer of breaded batter on the outside, and it was somewhat misshapen. He apologized for it's shape - "It curled up on me in the fryer. Happens like that from time to time." I said that it didn't matter for me. A slice of red onion and a smattering of dill pickles were sitting on the crown of an oval shaped split-top bun. I asked Neal where he got his buns since I'd never seen one like that before. I wondered if it was from a local baker that specialized in Danish breads and pastries. But he blew the mystique that I had in my mind by replying, "Naw, we just get 'em from Sam's Club. We saw these buns one time and thought they'd be kind of good to go with our tenderloins."
After dressing the tenderloin with the onion, pickles and some yellow mustard, I cut off the misshapen part of the tenderloin that was sticking out from the bun. The tenderloin was still too hot to consume, so I waited a few moments before I bit in, talking with Neal Larsen while I waited. He told me that he and his wife still do a lot of catering jobs. Larsen told me that he has a couple local kids help out for the catering business and one or two people help out at nights in the restaurant. He said his biggest problem with the catering business is "saying no". He explained that there were times when they bit off a little more than they can chew and they'd sometime have a couple catering jobs going on at the same time. "We've learned to say no to some of the jobs," he said. "We had to. We were getting sort of burned out."
He went back into the kitchen to turn off the fryer and I determined the tenderloin was now cool enough to try a bite. I cut off a bit of the misshapen chunk that I had cut off from the main part of the tenderloin moments before and took a bite. The tenderloin was tender, flavorful and juicy. The breaded batter on the outside was very tasty as well. (I surmised initially that it was just a batter that they used on their tenderloins at Larsen's Pub, but Neal Larsen told me, "No, it's a breading. It's basically a breading and a batter mix, but it's still a breading that we use.)
The breaded batter was also very rich and I thought I'd have trouble finishing the whole sandwich. After finishing off the misshapen part that I'd cut off, I concentrated on the sandwich. The bun was tender and chewy and it was a good complement to the pork tenderloin. The combination of the taste of the pork tenderloin along with the yellow mustard, dill pickles and red onion slice was outstanding. It was one of the best pork tenderloin sandwiches I've ever had. THEE best? Hmmm.... Possibly yes, maybe not. If it isn't the best I've ever had, it's damned close to the best. And that's what I told Neal Larsen when he asked how his pork tenderloin stacked up against the other winners that I've had.
Larsen's Pub doesn't take credit cards, but the pork tenderloin and a beer came to less than $10 bucks. It was a great value because it was a lot of food. (I didn't have dinner that evening as I was still full from my lunch.) As I was leaving, Neal Larsen said, "Be sure to tell people about us out here." I told him to not worry, I would tell others.
And I just did...