While driving from Kansas City recently, I decided to stop in Des Moines and get a "sting grinder" from The Tavern on Army Post Road on the south side of town. (Click here to see the entry on The Tavern.) Imagine my surprise when I pulled up and found that the place was no longer The Tavern, but a place called Nick's that touted pork tenderloin sandwiches. Sort of downhearted that The Tavern was no longer in business at that location (they still have their two locations open in West Des Moines), the notion of having a pork tenderloin sort of jumped out at me. Just up the road from that place is one of the more famous - if not THE most famous - pork tenderloin sandwich in Des Moines - Smitty's Tenderloin Shop. I thought if I was going to get a tenderloin, I'd go back to Smitty's because it had been a long, long time since I was last there.
In 1950, the Blue Jay Diner at the corner of Army Post Road and Fleur Drive - directly in the flight path of the Des Moines International Airport - opened for business. The Blue Jay sat across the street from a gas station that was owned by Bill "Smitty" Smith. The Blue Jay was sort of famous for their large handmade pork tenderloin sandwiches - the King Tenderloin - that they started to make a couple years after they opened. The Blue Jay was in business until 1966 before it shut down during the winter. It was a cold day in December in his service station's garage when Smitty decided to buy the Blue Jay and change occupations.
After a short renovation and cleaning period - and changing the name of the diner - Smitty's Tenderloin Shop opened in early 1967. The place continued to make the pork tenderloin sandwiches that the Blue Jay made famous and Smitty, himself, came up with a special cracker breading recipe to coat the pounded pork tenderloins. They still use that cracker breading recipe today, getting the coating mixture from Chicago. Smitty ran the restaurant until he retired in November of 1983.
After Smitty retired, his son, Greg, and Greg's wife, Cheri, took over the business. Because of the close proximity to the airport and the corner of Army Post and Fleur, the FAA wanted to have open space under the flight path of runway 31 and the city was starting to buy properties on the corner. The Smith's moved to their new - and present day - location six blocks to the east on Army Post Road six months after taking over from Smitty.
The Smith's continue to run Smitty's Tenderloin Shop and they've included their son, Ben, in the business as the General Manager. When Greg and Cheri retire, Ben will take over the shop making it three generations of family owning the business.
Driving back to the west, I came up to Smitty's Tenderloin Shop with it's distinctive sign on the east side of the building. (see map) It's a caricature of Smitty holding an over-sized tenderloin sandwich with the phrase, "Smitty sez Take Home a Tenderloin To-Nite." I was able to find a parking spot in front of the building as it was after the lunch rush when I pulled in.
Smitty's has changed little - if any - since the last time I was in the place over 20 years ago. It has a couple three booths, a handful of tables and about a dozen seats around an "L" shaped counter. The grill and fryer area is located behind the counter toward the back of the place.
My server came over to drop off a menu and she immediately asked me if I knew what I wanted. Since most people come in asking for a tenderloin - you can order a King loin either full or half - she was taking a chance that's what I was going to get, as well. And even though I wanted to get a tenderloin, I still wanted to check out the menu.
In addition to their tenderloins, Smitty's features a number of burgers on the menu, as well as grilled or fried chicken sandwiches. Fries, onion rings, cheese sticks and breaded mushrooms are available, as well. And one thing that I remember from years ago, you can order an extra bun to cut a tenderloin in half for two people to share.
When she came back to take my order, I got the King tenderloin with onions and pickles. Yellow mustard was available on the table. I am a pork tenderloin purist - no ketchup or barbecue sauce on a breaded/battered tenderloin sandwich. About 10 minutes later she showed up with my King tenderloin, cut in half. Like most flattened pork tenderloin sandwiches, it stuck out in all directions from under the bun. The bun they use at Smitty's is pretty basic. Ample amounts of onion and pickles were on the bottom of the tenderloin sandwich. I added yellow mustard before I took my first bite.
I'm not big on breaded tenderloins - I like the battered ones much better - and I don't know if I've ever been overly fond of the cracker breading at Smitty's. But that's not to say that it's a rather unique taste to their tenderloin. It's sort of cruncy on the outside, but the pork is moist and tender inside. You're getting much more bun and breading with a King tenderloin, but it still tastes fine.
About a half hour after downing a good portion of the King tenderloin, a reminder of why I haven't been back in so long came back to haunt me - indigestion. Oh man! I was burping and my stomach was rolling and I had heartburn pretty bad. I usually don't get heartburn, but I suddenly remembered that the tenderloins at Smitty's come back to talk to me after I ate them.
Smitty's Tenderloin Shop is one of those institutions in Des Moines that is famous beyond the region. For some people, it's the first place they stop after they get off a plane in Des Moines. For others, it's the last stop to grab a tenderloin to-go before they board their plane out of town. Smitty's has been doing their tenderloins for over 45 years - over 60 years if you count the King tenderloin years at the Blue Jay diner - and it's one of those places that you absolutely love or don't care for. I'm somewhere in the middle. (Picture courtesy the Des Loines blog that features pork tenderloins from across the state of Iowa. Check out his great blog site here.)