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I first had this iconic Midwest sandwich several years ago at the High Life Lounge in Des Moines and had to recreate it for myself. A face-sized breaded pork tenderloin sits on top of the tiniest bun with your choice of condiments. I like it with mustard, ketchup, and exactly 3 pickles. Vijay, Recipe Hunter

Vijay Nathan, NoshOnIt Recipe Hunter and Chef

THE RECIPE

Iowa Style Pork Tenderloin Sandwich

A Midwest classic recreated in your own home

How to Make an Iowa Style Pork Tenderloin Sandwich

Philly has the cheesesteak. Kentucky has the hot brown. The Carolinas have pulled pork. Nearly every state in the country has an iconic sandwich that it can squarely call it’s own. And Iowa has this. The infamous, often-debated Pork Tenderloin Sandwich.

It’s often the source of deep-seeded resentment and argument. While I have no reason to believe that the Pork Tenderloin Sandwich has its roots in the great state of Iowa, there is a legion of Hoosiers out there who might beg to disagree. It’s not a surprise that the Midwest is pork country, and home to some of the hardest working, down-to-earth people.

But where exactly the Pork Tenderloin Sandwich calls home is up for debate. When you scour the web, you’ll find most people calling this a “Hoosier Pork Tenderloin Sandwich” or an “Indiana Pork Tenderloin Sandwich.” Folk from Indiana will feverishly claim this sandwich as their own, disregarding any claims that it originated in Iowa. There’s even this gem of a video that shows how people across Indiana do this sandwich differently (it’s worth a watch, if only for the hairstyles).

How to Make an Iowa Style Pork Tenderloin Sandwich

However, I first had this sandwich several years ago in Iowa. In Des Moines, to be exact, at the iconic High Life Lounge. Then, I had it again a few days later at B&B Deli just down the road. Needless to say, we ate a lot of pork on that trip.

Almost every restaurant in Des Moines (at least that we went to) had some variation on the pork tenderloin sandwich, so for me, this particular recipe is modeled after what I remember: a face-sized thinly pounded breaded pork tenderloin (more on this below), set between a tiny, nearly insufficient hamburger bun and topped with your choice of condiments. Some people like just mayo, others take it all the way. I like a generous squeeze of yellow mustard, maybe a little ketchup, and exactly 3 pickles. (Ignore the tomato in the picture, that was just for color). Why 3? Because that’s how they do it at the High Life Lounge.

How to Make an Iowa Style Pork Tenderloin Sandwich

(Sidenote: want to know a food blogger secret? If you don’t want to make french fries for a photoshoot, visit your nearest fast food restaurant and voilá, instant prop for $2)

Now, back to the breading. In my research, I came across nearly every combination of breading procedure out there. Some use the classic flour/egg/bread crumb mixture. Some use buttermilk instead of egg. Others use panko bread crumbs, cracker crumbs, seasoned breadcrumbs, or no breadcrumbs at all. I’m not exactly sure what they use at the High Life, but for this I opted to go with flour, then buttermilk, then homemade cracker crumbs, made from blitzing a sleeve of Saltines in the food processor.

To make the cutlets, simply buy thinly-pounded pork tenderloin at the store, or buy an entire tenderloin (which will save you money), cut it up into chops, then pound it thin. Run it through the breading, then shallow fry it for just a few minutes per side in a cast iron skillet until golden brown, crispy, and juicy. To keep the fried cutlets crispy after cooking, I like to put them on top of a cooling rack that’s set on top of a paper-towel lined baking sheet. That way, air can circulate all the way around and no part of the tenderloin gets soggy.

How to Make an Iowa Style Pork Tenderloin Sandwich

Set out some simple condiments and let people build their own sandwiches for a true taste of the Midwest right in your own kitchen. But remember, only 3 pickles.

Iowa Style Pork Tenderloin Sandwich

Prep Time: 30 minutes

Cook Time: 20 minutes

Yield: 6 sandwiches
Ingredients:
  • 1 boneless pork tenderloin, 2-3 pounds
  • 2 cups all purpose flour
  • 1 1/2 cups buttermilk
  • 1 sleeve Saltine crackers
  • 1/2 teaspoon garlic powder
  • 1/2 teaspoon onion powder
  • 1/2 teaspoon paprika
  • 1/2 teaspoon black pepper
  • Vegetable or Grapeseed oil, for pan frying
  • For serving: hamburger buns, ketchup, mustard, mayonnaise, pickles
Instructions:
  1. Trim the excess fat from the tenderloin and cut it into 6 equal pieces, approximately 2" wide for each piece. Butterfly each piece but slicing almost all the way through it vertically, flattening it on a cutting board, then pounding into a thin cutlet with a meat mallet, rolling bin, or bottom of a heavy bottomed frying pan. Cover the meat with a piece of plastic wrap to make the process cleaner. Depending on how big your tenderloin is, the final cutlet should be 6" to 8" wide.
  2. Make the cracker crumbs by pulsing the Saltine crackers in a food processor 15-20 times until fine crumbs form.
  3. Set up your dredging station. In a pie plate or other wide plate, sprinkle the flour. In a separate deep plate or bowl, add the buttermilk. In a third pan, add the cracker crumbs, garlic powder, onion, powder, paprika, and pepper and mix to combine. Since the Saltines are already salty, you don't need to add any additional salt.
  4. Add 1" of oil to a large cast iron skillet and heat over medium high heat.
  5. To dredge the pork tenderloin cutlets, dip one piece into the flour on both sides then lightly tap off the excess flour. Dip it into the buttermilk then into the seasoned cracker crumbs, coating completely.
  6. Lower the breaded tenderloin gently into the hot oil and pan-fry until golden brown, 2-3 minutes per side. Remove to a cooling rack set over a paper towel lined baking sheet. Repeat with the other tenderloins.
  7. Serve each tenderloin on a hamburger bun with condiments of your choice. I prefer it with ketchup, mustard, and exactly 3 pickles, just like they serve it at my favorite place in Des Moines.


  • This has Mr. Allie’s name written all over it! Love the “face sized” pork cutlet, lol!

  • Vijay!!! I love this sandwich and I’m still kicking myself that we didn’t get out to High Life Lounge!!! I’m going to have to make this sandwich at home for myself. . and love the homemade cracker crumbs and the wire rack on top of the paper towels tip!!!

  • Tia Maria

    Im from Iowa and ran an eatery there , and tenderloins were our specialty. and to get this correct. You must pound the meat , soak in milk for 3-4 hours. then use cracker Crumbs for the breading. you can purchase cracker crumb in the store or use a food grinder with ritz – and fry in peanut oil and the only seasoning is seasoned salt with it

  • Carolyn Smith

    Ate this sandwich in the 1950’s in Jacksonville Illinois at Birsell’s drive in restaurant. They were the best. No grease!

  • Paige Alison Forrest Beall

    I made tenderloins last night using this recipe. They were fantastic. My daughters said they taste almost like the ones at Maid*Rite in Cedar Rapids, Iowa. Cheers!!

  • Linda Smith

    No, No, No, there should be NO tomato on there and no ketchup. I am from Iowa and these are the rules, mustard, 3 dill pickles. Maybe lettuce.

    • SON OF BARRY

      there are NO rules

      • Linda Smith

        Put on the tomato and ketchup and it is no longer a REAL Iowa pork sandwich. Just a sandwich.