PRAIRIE CITY, Iowa — It would be easy to pass by the small, white building with its red-trimmed windows. After all, the cafe is dwarfed by the nearby grain elevators and the Prairie City water tower.
Yet the often-crowded gravel lot, where BMWs park beside John Deere tractors, prompts a double take. What's so special about this place known as Goldie's Ice Cream Shoppe?
It's not the soft-serve that draws the crowds; it's the blue-ribbon pork tenderloin sandwiches.
Not typical on menus everywhere, these massive pork tenderloins are wildly popular in Iowa, a state where pigs outnumber people 5 to 1.
"There's a serious cult following," observed Brad Magg, who bought Goldie's in 2007 and two years later won the prestigious prize for best breaded pork tenderloin from the Iowa Pork Producers Association.
The win put Goldie's, and Prairie City (population 1,665), on the map.
"We went from 300 tenderloins a week to 500 tenderloins a day," Magg said of the aftermath of the first-place finish. Since then, things have settled down, but Goldie's still serves about 1,200 of the regional favorite each week. Many of his customers regularly make pilgrimages from Des Moines, the state capital, about 20 miles west.
What makes a breaded pork tenderloin an award winner? That's a question best answered by Nelda Christian, of Ames. For the last 10 years, she and two other judges have crisscrossed the Hawkeye State in search of the best-tasting, best-looking pork tenderloins from among thousands of nominations.
"A lot of it is thickness (of the meat)," she explained. "You don't want it pounded out real thin because when you pound it out real thin and then it's breaded, all you're eating is breading.
"Sometimes, you get a sandwich where the meat might be really good, but the breading might just be off a little, or vice versa. It's really the taste and the way it looks."
Magg, who also operates a catering business that he began when he was still in middle school, hand-breads 5-ounce pork tenderloins as they're ordered. His menu includes not only the "basic" award winner but also the Magg Combo, a tenderloin and a cheeseburger in one bun, and the Mingo Special, a tenderloin topped with sausage and melted cheese.
The beef for the burgers and the pork for the sausage come from the nearby Colfax-area farm of his father. His mom makes the potato salad, as much as 40 gallons a week, that's available as a side.
Just like Goldie's, the pork tenderloin sandwich winners usually are small restaurants in small towns. For example, the 2012 champ is Breitbach's Country Dining in Balltown, a hamlet in Dubuque County in northeast Iowa.
"We have very few chains and very few big restaurants involved in this. This is a mom-and-pop-type contest," Christian noted.
The winners of the 2008 prize are transplanted Chicagoans Ben and Jeri Halperin (another Ben and Jeri?), who snared first place within months of opening the Augusta Restaurant in tiny Oxford, Iowa (population 820).
Ben, a Rogers Park native, said he had never heard of a pork tenderloin sandwich before moving to Iowa.
"Chicago is very into spicy and saucy," he observed. "I think pork tenderloins would be seen (there) as plain.
"One of our (business) partners said, 'You've got to have a pork tenderloin,' but I didn't find anything I liked," he continued.
That's when his quest for a great pork tenderloin began. While his breading contains what he called "supersecret ingredients," Halperin said he begins with an 8- to 10-ounce tenderloin that he brines before breading and frying. In his tiny kitchen he bakes the buns on top of which the tenderloins sit. The pickles and the mayonnaise also are homemade.
The result is a sandwich that, at 10 inches across, is wider than the plate on which it rests.
"Holy cow, they're even bigger than I remembered," exclaimed Leila Henkle as Jeri Halperin delivered the mega-sandwiches to her and her husband, Bill. The Montezuma, Iowa, retirees had dropped by for lunch on their way home from an appointment in Iowa City, about 20 miles east.
"Every time we go past here (on Interstate Highway 80), Bill says, 'We should have gone to Oxford to get a tenderloin.'"
Unable to finish her sandwich, Leila departed clutching a to-go box containing her flavorful leftovers.
"I've never felt in competition with chain restaurants," Ben Halperin noted. "I feel more in competition with grandma."
Where to find 'em
Augusta and Goldie's are minutes off Interstate Highway 80. Oxford is about four hours west of Chicago; Prairie City is about 90 minutes farther west. Breitbach's works better for diners heading for Dubuque/Galena.
The Augusta Restaurant (319-828-2252, augustarestaurant.net), 101 S. Augusta Ave., Oxford, is open Wednesday through Sunday. The pork tenderloin sells for $10. Add freshly made sweet potato chips for 2 bucks more.
Goldie's (515-994-3190, goldiesicecreamshoppe.com), 304 W. Second St., Prairie City, is open seven days a week. The basic sandwich is $5.98. With a cheeseburger or sausage added, it's $8.30.
Breitbach's Country Dining (563-552-2220, breitbachscountrydining.com), 563 Balltown Road, Balltown, is closed Mondays through winter. The tenderloin on the lunch menu goes for $6.25. Toss in some cheese curds for $5.50. By the way, the place has been in the same family since 1862.