I love restaurants that have a great back story and some history behind them. In the state of Indiana, they take their grilled pork tenderloin sandwiches very seriously. Between Iowa and Indiana, those two states have the market cornered on seriously good pork tenderloin sandwiches. One place in Indiana claims that it was the first place to sell breaded pork tenderloins, dating back to 1908. That place - Nick's Kitchen in Huntington - is one of the more famous places to eat in Indiana and definitely a destination. After calling on a couple of accounts in Fort Wayne, I took the side trip to Huntington to try one of Nick's tenderloins.
Nick Freienstein was one of seven children in his family, born in 1876. In 1888, he dropped out of school to work at a cigar factory in Huntington. Over the next dozen plus years, Nick held a number of jobs around town including at a local grocery store and at a local confectionery shop. In 1904, he decided to be his own boss and he started to push a hamburger cart around the downtown area of Huntington. In addition to burgers, Nick would take pork cutlets, bread them and fry them for sandwiches. Nick's burgers and pork sandwiches were so popular that he had to move to a lean-to structure under some stairs to satisfy the masses who kept trying to find him on the streets of Huntington.
After four years of working under the stairs, he amassed enough money to open a restaurant in what is now the present day location of Nick's Kitchen. He now had a full kitchen to make his burgers and pork tenderloin sandwiches and he was able to sort of refine how he made the sandwiches. A story I read involved his brother, Jake, who lost the fingers on both hands due to excessive frost bite. It turned out that Jake was the one who was in charge of breading the meat at Nick's and he found his stumped hand were perfect to pound the pork cutlets to make them more tender. It was sort of the precursor to more modern methods of tenderizing the pork for tenderloin sandwiches.
In 1929, Nick sold his interest in the restaurant to two local men who ran it for a number of years, selling it in the early 50's. That owner of Nick's Kitchen sold his interest in 1969 to Gene Drabonstot, a local Huntington man who worked for the Erie Lackawanna Railroad. Along with his wife, Peggy, the Drabonstot's renovated Nick's Kitchen and decorated the walls with a number of railroad-themed pictures. Their five children - two sons and three daughters - all worked in the restaurant at one time or another.
In 1981, Gene retired from the railroad and a year later he bought the old Clydesdale Inn in nearby Roanoke and renamed it Nick's Junction. By 1989, he was transitioning out of the restaurant business and began to travel the country with Peggy pulling a vintage Airstream camper. His daughter, Jean Anne Bailey, and her husband Kenny now run Nick's Kitchen, with Gene's son Jim with his wife Dana running Nick's Junction. Gene's daughter Nancy Bonebrake, and her husband Jim, went out their own and opened Nick's Country Cafe in an old Mexican restaurant location in downtown Huntington in 1992 before moving to their current location on the outskirts of Huntington in 1996. (Gene Drabonstot passed away eight years ago at the age of 80.)
Nick's Kitchen is located on N. Jefferson Street in downtown Huntington. (see map) I was able to find parking just down the street from Nick's and went in around 1:30 that day. The well-lit diner featured wood-paneled walls with old photographs of Huntington and rail yards, as well as a model train in a glass case on the wall near the ceiling.
The place was about half full and I took a seat at a booth along the wall and took a look at the menu they had sitting on the table. Even though Nick's Kitchen is famous for their pork tenderloins, they also serve breakfast items, and at lunch they also have pulled pork sandwiches, a prime rib sandwich, panini sandwiches, soups, salads and Nick's famous house-made pies.
I ordered up a tenderloin with onions and pickles (mustard was available on the table). My waitress wanted to know if I wanted fries or house-made onion rings, but I thought the sandwich would be enough. It was served to me open faced with a good number of sliced onions on the top with dill pickles on the side.
The thing I immediately liked about the tenderloin at Nick's is that is was thin, but it wasn't the size of a hub cap like you'll find at some place. I prefer a battered tenderloin over a breaded one, but the breading was light and it didn't have that dry bread taste to the bite. The tenderloin was very good - it was cooked perfectly giving it a nice juicy texture, easy to chew with a great taste. It was one of the better pork tenderloin sandwiches I've had.
A lot of times I've found the signature food at somewhat historical restaurants don't quite live up to the hype. I can easily say that isn't the case with the pork tenderloin sandwich at Nick's Kitchen. It wasn't heavily breaded, nor was it over cooked with the texture of leather. This was a very good pork tenderloin that rivaled some of the best ones I've ever had. Nick's Kitchen is definitely a destination, unless you're in the Fort Wayne area. But I'd say to make the trip to Huntington to give their tenderloin a try. You'll be glad you did.