I have completed the pork tenderloin trifecta.
In 2003, Jane and Michael Stern of Road Food fame penned a piece in Gourmet magazine proclaiming the three best breaded pork tenderloin sandwiches anywhere came from Nick’s Kitchen in Huntington, Gnaw Bone Food & Fuel in the tiny Brown County town of Gnaw Bone and from Mr. Dave’s in North Manchester.
Having once lived in nearby Columbus, the Food & Fuel was the first of the three I tried. I had Nick’s version not long after moving to Fort Wayne, and recently visited Mr. Dave’s to complete my journey.
Celebrating its 50th year, Mr. Dave’s, like the two other establishments, is a place that is nearly impossible to dislike. Located at Market and Main streets in a funky little corner building with bay windows and aged, rough-cut wooden walls covered with articles giving love to that famous tenderloin, it is small-town charm at its best. There is no tableside service – you order at the counter fast-food style and are given a number – but everyone there was as nice as could be.
And, of course, it is a popular place. The drive-thru never slowed down. With just minutes until closing one night, a truck pulled through the drive-thru for, you guessed it, a tenderloin.
Mr. Dave’s tenderloin, unlike many others including Gnaw Bone’s and Nick’s, is not ridiculously bigger than its bun. It had a fine breading that evenly covered and pretty much encapsulated the meat, which made it resemble a commercially made chicken patty. It was also thicker than its Frisbee-sized counterparts – about three-quarters of an inch thick – and the meat was really juicy. It was easily the juiciest cut of loin I had from the three legendary places. It also had that delicious mild flavor with no aftertaste that only top-notch pork has.
It was clear this loin was worthy of all those publication clippings.
And while gazing at some of them, I noticed many articles giving love to another pork sandwich, the Bar B.Q. Finely chopped pork was drenched in a dark red sauce that was sweet and just a little tangy. The flavor put it in the neighborhood of the loin, but I couldn’t help but be a bit turned off when I saw employees heating that pork up in a microwave.
The microwave was used way too much at Mr. Dave’s. My broasted Cheesy Potatoes would have been great if they had been fresh and crisp from the broaster, but they must have been broasted earlier in the day and they, too, found their way to the microwave before finding their way to my stomach. The other sides I tried – coleslaw, macaroni salad and baked beans – were all homemade and better, with the beans being the best. They were sweet, thanks to that same barbecue sauce from the pork sandwich and, yes, there was a fair amount of that pork mixed in them.
Another homemade item that caught my eye was the pork sausage sandwich because, honestly, not many places go to the trouble of making sausage. It also comes in a version dubbed a patty melt with grilled onions and Swiss cheese on a wheat bun, which I chose, or with sauerkraut and Swiss. The sausage was nicely seared on the griddle and mild with that distinctive country sausage flavor from black pepper and sage. The sweetness of the onions was a welcome addition and, of course, cheese is never a bad idea.
The Junior Cheeseburger, a little bigger than a slider, was also not a bad choice. The beef was nicely seared and juicy inside and it was a great option for a lighter appetite when ordered deluxe style with tomato, onion, pickle and mayo.
But no matter how good the burger, the barbecue or the beans, the only thing you really want to know or need to know about Mr. Dave’s has to do with that pork tenderloin.
So, with my fatty fried pork sandwich journey over, how would I rank those three legends?
Nick’s is easily my favorite. The gritty, cracker crumb breading has the perfect texture and crunch, and the thickness and quality of the pork make it hard to beat.
The Gnaw Bone Food & Fuel (now known as the Gnaw Mart) comes next. Again, its size and the fantastic crunch it gets from being broasted instead of deep fried make it just a little better than Mr. Dave’s.
But that’s not to take anything away from Mr. Dave’s. I am raking the best of the best here, and it clearly belongs among those best.
And it is clearly worth having again.
Restaurant: Mr. Dave’s
Address: 102 E. Main St., North Manchester
Hours: 10 a.m. to 8 p.m. Monday through Saturday
Handicapped accessible: Yes
Smoking status: None
Credit cards: Yes
Menu: Tenderloin ($4.29), Pork Bar B.Q. ($2.99), sausage ($2.75), baked beans (95 cents, small; $1.40, large), coleslaw (89 cents), potato salad ($1.99)
Rating breakdown: Food: ** (3-star maximum); atmosphere: 1/2 (1 maximum), service: 1/2 (1 maximum)
Note: Restaurants are categorized by price range: $ (less than $20 for three-course meal), $$ ($20-$29); $$$ ($30-$39), $$$$ ($40-$49), $$$$$ ($50 and up).