Chapter 3: Tenderloining It!
Tenderloining it! I’m sure if you were to rush to your dictionary you would fail to find the term “tenderloining” anywhere within its pages. One of the great things about language is the fact that it is constantly evolving. What was not a word, a correct usage, or a correct spelling will over time be absorbed and become a part of the language. Language evolves. New words are added. Old words are left behind like a vestigial tail.
“Tenderloining” might not be an accepted English word yet, but if I have my way, it will be a common term in the near future. It will be common to hear people answer questions about their weekend plans with the simple two word retort: “Tenderloining it!” or the variation, “The wife and I are going to tenderloin it up!” The variation will sometimes be accompanied by the optional international “raise the roof” gesture. Two high shrilled “whoos!” will also be optional.
I personally had been aching to go tenderloining for almost half a year now. I have been passionate about the tenderloin ever since I knew such a sandwich existed. I have been interested in the concept of perfection since I learned that it wasn’t attainable. I have been fascinated by the concept of rankings since I received my first issue of Sports Illustrated as a child. I had been aching to go to a restaurant known as Darrell’s Place in Hamlin, Iowa ever since I knew that they served what was considered to be the best tenderloin in the state.
Now if you lived in a sissy state like Nebraska, Massachusetts, or Arizona; having the best tenderloin in the state might not mean much. On the other hand, in a state like Iowa (where we know our meat) having the best tenderloin is quite an accomplishment.
I had to make my own estimations though. A tenderloin aficionado such as myself can’t just merely take the word of somebody else. I had to see, smell, and taste for myself. Not by myself though, but with somebody.
I am not a solitary creature. If I were to ever send a secret to Post Secret, that wasn’t something meaningful or actually deep, it would be that I don’t like to eat alone. But it just isn’t my fear of dining alone that made me seek out a compatriot for my tenderloin road trip.
It is my belief that a road trip, although it can be made alone, is much better when shared. Although this wasn’t going to be a long road trip, it was still going to be over 4 hours round trip, plus dining time. I needed to find somebody to share the adventure.
I took a look at the list of my normal road trip chums. It didn’t look promising. Most of my friends that would be interested in such a venture had the type of job where you have to work on weekends. My friends that don’t work on the weekend wouldn’t want to drive 2 hours just to eat a tenderloin. There was the possibility of Willy. He only works 4 days a week and does enjoy hitting the open road on occasion. Plus despite his vigorous workout routine, his dietary habits are far from exemplary. The only problem with Willy is that his planner is imaginary and he is notoriously flaky. Particularly when it comes to committing and then backing out of road trips.
Then there was the possibility of Jay. He was definitely a fan of the road trip. He is as reliable as Willy is flaky. There were just two problems with Jay. The first one being that in order for him to get a Saturday off, he has to ask for it one lunar cycle in advance, do a rain dance, wish on a falling star, and pray for a miracle. Then if everything breaks just right, he might get a Saturday off. The second problem is that Jay on occasion likes to eat “healthy”. I was worried that we would make the 2 hour drive to Hamlin and when we got there he would embarrass us in front of the locals by ordering a salad.
When it seemed that all was lost, I was given a surprise. I was discussing my desire to try the state’s best tenderloin with Baier one day. He announced to me that not only had he been to Darrell’s Place, but he was willing to proclaim it the best tenderloin that he had ever taken down.
Eureka! I had my compatriot! Baier is from Audubon, which is a mere stone’s throw from Hamlin. Not only did I have a compatriot. I had a guide. I had access to a wealth of local knowledge. This might have been divine intervention.
The only problem now was scheduling a time to make our pilgrimage. It didn’t turn out to be as easy as I had suspected. Despite us both not having most weekends free from work (me from the computer mine and he from his cushy financial planner job) it turns out we sure had a lot of other commitments. It seemed like our schedules were never going to line up. It seemed that the sun and moon crossed paths more than us.
Yet when all hope seemed to be lost Baier came to me with an offer. He was going to Audubon with his family to witness a dance recital. I could ride along with them, but that would mean spending the night in Audubon. Or I could drive myself and then drive myself back. That would mean losing the communal spiritual experience that is the road trip.
Then I got an e-mail from Shannon about the possibility of getting a little scratch for taking pictures of beans. After I met with her I knew that the shooting schedule was going to be tight. They wanted a pretty quick turnaround. I sent an e-mail to Baier telling him that I needed to back out of the trip. I would have to “work” on Saturday. It turns out that in this relationship I was the one that was flaky.
Although I badly longed for the taste of the state’s best tenderloin, it did not hurt me too much to send the cancellation notice to Baier. I’ve been called a “true believer” in the past. This roadtrip that we were going to make wasn’t pure. This road trip wasn’t all about the tenderloin. This road trip was all about a dance recital with a little bit of tenderloin on the side. A little diversion. Nothing more.
“Tenderloining it” isn’t a diversion. It isn’t eating lunch because we are hungry. “Tenderloining it” is the activity. It is the alpha and the omega. It isn’t the delta, the gamma or the epsilon. I wanted this experience to be about the tenderloin, not something we can do because we are in the area.
Baier sent an e-mail back that consisted of his booing me. It is not the first time that I have been booed by him. I do not know if it is something that it is in the water in Audubon or if it is merely a Baier family trait,(I will have to watch his children for this trait) but it is the manner that he shows his lack of approval for the actions of his friends. Although I have been booed numerous times in the past, I had not been booed by him since I told him I was going to watch Barack Obama speak and I asked if he might be interested in attending as well. He booed me.
I am not a fan of booing. When I attend sporting events I go to cheer for my team. I do not go to deride the other team. I only crack out the “boo” when I am facing evil in its purest form: the Nebraska Cornhusker football team.
Like all the times in the past, I told Baier that he was a big kid now and he needed to use his “words”.
He booed me again. Then there was silence.
Late on Thursday I got an e-mail from Baier. The e-mail was entitled “My Final Offer”. This sounded an awful lot like an ultimatum. Although it has never been diagnosed (nor do I even fathom that something like this actually exists) I have a firm belief that I suffer from a Psychological Reactance Disorder. I considered for a second not even opening up this ultimatum. Who was he to give me an ultimatum?
Then a vision of the best tenderloin in the state of Iowa danced across my head. I decided to take the risk of opening the arrogantly entitled e-mail. I gave Baier his “final chance”.
Turned out that his final offer was actually a pretty good offer. He proposed that I take off work an hour early on Tuesday. He would pick me up and then we would be on the road to tenderloin greatness. Furthermore, he proposed an extra stop to help settle a family dispute.
Baier’s old man used to run a Ford dealership in Exira, which is about another stone’s throw from Hamlin. The Old Man always claimed that Darrell’s Place did not deserve its place in the Tenderloin Pantheon. A place in Exira called The Red Barn served the superior tenderloin. Baier proposed that we call ahead and order 1 tenderloin to go from the Red Barn and then split it between us on the way to Hamlin. He was proposing nothing less than Tenderloin Judgment Day.
The prospect of sitting in judgment on not 1, but 2 tenderloins excited me. I wrote him back immediately that his proposal was accepted and I looked forward to the 2 Tenderloin Road trip, as it will become known to future generations.
The Tuesday came. It was New Taste Tuesday and it was Steve’s turn in the rotation. There was some debate about whether or not it should in fact be Steve’s choice since on the previous Tuesday he had vetoed Frank’s choice of The Café and then took us to Dublin Bay. A power he had because he was driving the car.
Frank chose to take the higher road and allowed Steve to have the choice and Steve chose Indigo Joe’s. I was hoping that this would be a quick restaurant since I was hoping that we would have enough time left over for us to make a stop at Best Buy so I could pick up the 2 Disc Special Edition of “Pan’s Labyrinth” and Steve would still have time to have his smoky treat.
As we were cruising down Duff I hatched a rather brilliant plan. Indigo Joe’s is a sports bar. I could have a tenderloin for lunch and have perhaps the first 3 tenderloin day in recorded history. (Although some killjoys would no doubt want an asterisk placed next to my record and it stated that in fact I really only had 2.5 tenderloins.)
However, it would be a moot point. Indigo Joe’s does not have a tenderloin on their menu. A mistake they would compound by having extremely slow service. Which slightly surprises me since we sat in the bar area and I almost always get fantastic service when I sit in the bar area. That surprise aside, my dream of buying “Pan’s Labyrinth” was squashed.
I returned to the mine content to just finish out my workday.
A little after 5 pm Baier showed up. I was done with my work for the day and I only had to hand off the kid that was job shadowing me to the Company President. It had been about 20 minutes since Angie handed the kid off to me and I had yet to show him anything that even slightly interested him. I offered to show him the insides of a computer and he said he didn’t want to see them. He was equally unimpressed by our server rack. The South Parker Server was also a bust. It was after 5 so I handed him off to his next keeper.
By the time I handed him off we were already behind schedule. So my brief hope of making a stop at Best Buy was once again extinguished. Instead I grabbed the Maxxum 5D and we loaded up his car and hit US30 heading west.
On the way to Exira we made polite conversation. It ranged from the buffoonery of many NFL players to the times we shared at Dasher Mismanagement to religion to capitol punishment. They were the type of every day conversation that two intellectual giants have when they are sharing one another’s company. I wonder if it was the kind of conversations that Van Gogh and Gauguin might have shared when they lived together in that yellow house in Arles. Perhaps Baier and I could open up a colony in southern Iowa for fellow tenderloin lovers. That might just be a pipe dream though.
About 10 minutes from Exira Baier called The Red Barn and placed our order for one tenderloin. Perhaps two dudes with less security in their sexuality might not have been able to split a tenderloin. Fortunately we didn’t have this problem.
When we arrived at Exira he pointed out The Red Barn to me. At first I thought he was joking. From the outside it looked like a little shack. It was maybe ¼ the size of the Whistle Stop Café in Boone. It wasn’t even a barn. It was a tragic misnomer. The Red Tool Shed would have been a more accurate name. I tried to remind myself that looks could be deceiving. Some of the best barbecue in the world is in a little dump called Big Daddy’s in Des Moines. This could be the Big Daddy’s of Exira and the tenderloin world.
We didn’t stop though. Baier just cruised right on by. I peered at the window longing for the tenderloin that waited for us inside.
“Where you going?” I demanded.
“I’m going to give you the tour of Exira. Plus I need to stop at Casey’s and do some damage to their restroom.” He answered.
Truth be known, Baier is not the type of guy that would use that type of description of the human body’s biological function of waste disposal. I just feel like if I didn’t make the description more colorful, it might be less believable. Women need to think that when men are together without female supervision that it is utter chaos. A steady stream of profanity, crotch grabbing, scatological humor, and rubber necking.
It is safer to think that he said something along the lines of “drain the lizard, take the kids to the river, see a guy about a horse, or drain the main vein.” Truth is that he probably said something to the effect that he needed to use Casey’s facilities.
Whatever he said, I got the nickel tour of Exira. It consisted of driving up one road and stopping at Casey’s. While we were at Casey’s I also decided to take a leak. When I got out of the bathroom Baier was standing in front of an ATM machine. He seemed to be staring it down. But he wasn’t attempting to use it. He was just staring at it.
I broke his concentration by offering, “It must have impressed the natives when this type of technology became available to them two weeks ago.”
“I’m just trying to decide if I want to get any money.”
We stood there in silence for a few moments and then he indicated that it wouldn’t be necessary. Moments later we were back in the car driving the six blocks back to The Red Barn.
We parked on the east side of the restaurant. The Red Barn is a rectangular shaped building. We entered through a door that was square in the middle of one of the long sides of the rectangle.
Once inside I checked out both halves of the restaurant. On the left it looked like we had walked into somebody’s kitchen. It was not the industrial kitchen that I was used to seeing. It looked like my Grandma’s kitchen. The difference being that my Grandma has a pizza oven in her kitchen. I didn’t see a piece of equipment that looked that professional grade in this kitchen.
The other half of the restaurant contained four tables. Three of those tables were filled with townies. I have often heard the term small town hospitality. I have often been the recipient of small town hospitality. Don’t think that I dislike small towns. To the contrary, I hate cities. I love small towns. That being said, we were not the recipient of any small town hospitality.
The townies were staring bullets at us. For whatever reason, they did not want us there. I hoped silently that our sandwich was ready and we wouldn’t have to occupy the 4th table and wait. I didn’t want to answer any question like:
“Where you boys from?”
“You from the city? I can smell city on you!”
“You boys ain’t from around here, are ya?”
“Those are pretty clothes ya wearin’. You get those at a JC Penny’s”
“You want to squeal like a pig?”
My hopes were answered though. A teenage girl was working the counter. Baier stepped up to the counter. I subconsciously stepped with him. I didn’t want to separate too far from him. Just in case one of these townies wanted to back up the smack their glares were talking.
“I have a to go order for Baier.” He said.
The girl turned around and grabbed a brown paper bag that had his name written upon it. She came back and said, “$3.65”
Baier pulled out his credit card and said, “Do you take credit?”
The teenage girl began to speak, but before she could I cut her off, “Dude, we are in the sticks! You really think they are going to take credit cards.”
As I uttered the words I realized that I had just exponentially increased our odds of having somebody make one of us squeal like a pig. The bad news was that we didn’t have a young Burt Reynolds waiting in the car for us.
Baier was nonplussed and repeated the question.
Now that I had insulted the area, she seemed a little embarrassed to say, “No, we don’t.” I think she was wishing that they did take credit cards so she could have shut me up.
Baier moved on to form of payment number two.
“Do you take checks?”
“Yes, we do.” She said.
“From out of town?”
“No we don’t.”
“But my parents live in Audubon.” Baier tried to negotiate.
At this point I could feel the eyes of 6 or 7 townies burrowing into me. I had my wallet out and was reaching for the cash that I had brought with me because I didn’t even think we would see an ATM machine where we were going. But before I got my twenty out, the teenage girl had turned and walked back to a wall. I presume that behind the wall was the fryer. Also behind that wall was the person in charge.
“Can we take a check from out of town if their parents live in Audubon?”
The voice that answered was not kind or friendly. In fact it could only be described as snotty. That voice answered, “I’d prefer not to.”
The teenage girl came back up to the counter and gave us the bad news that we had already heard.
“That is really okay,” I said pushing the twenty into her hand. “I have cash.”
She took the money and brought me back my change. Baier grabbed the sandwich and I made haste to get out of the line of sight of the townies.
Once I was back outside the fresh air emboldened me. Although I felt very claustrophobic inside the restaurant, I wasn’t quite ready to leave the fair town of Exira. I reached into the backseat and grabbed the Maxxum 5D. I felt like taking some pictures of the area.
I had only brought my 50mm lens. It has become my standard lens. A fixed focal length lens is a good standard lens for a photographer. It teaches you discipline. So I was not able to get any wide angle shots of anything, but I took some pictures of The Red Barn, the Exira town sign, and of some grain bins.
I got back into the car and Baier asked if I wanted to go see the “Plow in the Oak”. It was nearby. I most certainly did.
I had read about the “Plow in the Oak” on a few occasions. It is exactly what it sounds like. A plow that over time is slowly being devoured by an Oak tree. Legend has it that a farmer left the plow next to the oak to go off to fight in the Civil War. As the years piled up and the owner never returned the oak grew around the plow. Eventually it gobbled up the plow.
I had even seen pictures of the “Plow in the Oak”. Jay and Willy had once stopped and taken pictures of the oddity on a rare road trip where Willy hadn’t flaked out.
>We headed out of Exira and stopped at the “Plow in the Oak” Park. It was decided that we should have dinner before desert. We split up the tenderloin and took it down. It was indeed a very tasty tenderloin. One of the best tenderloins I have ever had. However, could it compete with the tenderloin that legend claims is the best in the Cyclone State? That was yet to be determined.
We exited the car and followed the signs that pointed us in the direction of what we had come to see. At the far south end of the park there is indeed an oak tree with a plow sticking out of two sides of it. Not much though. There was maybe two inches of the plow sticking out on both sides. If I was the type that did any reckoning, I’d reckon that the plow will be completely devoured within the next 5 years.
As we walked back to the car Baier became excited. I think he was invigorated by smelling his native air. He stated that he wished we had more time so we could go see the “Tree in the Road”.
Knowing full well what the answer was going to be I asked, “What is the ‘Tree in the Road’?”
“It is a tree in the middle of a road.”
Honestly I am interested in seeing this oddity, but I’m more interested in a people that would just let a tree grow in the middle of a road. These aren’t my people though. I’m a Boonie. Boonies are my people. I understand them. I don’t think I will ever quite understand the mentality that just watches a tree grow in the middle of a road and doesn’t think:
“We might want to do something about that.”
I merely indicated that we will have to do that sometime. Then I handed over the Maxxum 5D.
“Hold this, please.” I said than I began digging in the backseat for a tripod.
At the beginning of every great road trip I think about taking a road trip group picture. I always envision a picture of the group of hardy travelers pictured next to their noble steed. I never end up taking this picture because Willy flakes out and puts me in a foul mood. This time I wasn’t to be denied.
“It is time for the road trip group picture.”
“What is that?”
“A picture of us with our noble steed.”
I began to setup the tripod and the camera and I turned around and saw that Jason was sitting on the hood of his car.
“Think you will have time to get up on the hood of the car?” he asked.
“The timer will be set for 10 seconds, which will be plenty of time, but are you sure that your hood can handle this much weight?”
This was the question I spoke, but what I really thought was that this picture is going to look kind of gay. I wondered if it was things like this that had made some scholars postulate that Gauguin and Van Gogh had “got it on! Whooo!”
“It can handle it.”
“This might look a little gay.”
He answered, “For two people less secure in their sexuality that would be a problem.”
It was an airtight argument. Neither of us was the type to answer a question about a perceived feminine activity with the answer, “because I’m not gay” or “let me check, nope I don’t have a vagina.”
So I started the timer and jumped softly onto the hood of the car next to Baier. Quite frankly though, I was never really very comfortable. It seemed to me that any moment the hood was going to collapse and the roadtrip would be over. That would have been a tragedy for Baier’s car and a tragedy for future generations who would only know this road trip as the “Failed Tenderloin Road Trip”.
Fortunately the ten seconds flew by and the shutter clicked. Potential disaster was averted. The hood and car were still in one piece as we hopped off the hood. We hopped back in the car and got back on the highway. Destination: “Best Tenderloin in Iowa.”
We pulled into Hamlin five minutes later. There isn’t much to the town. I’d say a few houses, Darrell’s Place, and a junkyard. Darrell’s place and the junkyard are right next to one another. Literally the east wall of Darrell’s place is facing a junkyard. There is a fence in the parking lot that separates Darrell’s place from the junkyard.
I had only seen something like this on one other occasion. Not surprisingly, that other occasion was south of the Mason-Dixon Line. When we were in Louisiana and we were searching for a place to eat we drove past a Church’s Chicken that sat on a corner lot. On two sides of the lot were streets. The other two sides of the lot were fences that separated the restaurant from a junkyard. On that day we chose to keep looking. On this day, I accepted the junkyard as just a small town quirk. A story that could be told later:
“The tenderloin was fantastic, but you won’t believe this little factoid. It actually shared a wall with a junkyard. I’m serious.”
We pulled onto the lot. I was relieved to see that this was an actual full sized restaurant. Although it looked like it was a steel building and a little more like a year round State Fair food stand than a restaurant, I was glad for its size. At least if we were crowded in with townies, we could keep some distance.
We walked in the door and sat ourselves. We choose a table that was near a stack of Darrell’s Place merchandise. I also noted that we were directly in front of a lottery machine. This restaurant had bathrooms. Two bathrooms, one for men and one for women. It had a salad bar. It had a full bar. Although it wasn’t enormous, this was a real restaurant. Not a food stand masquerading as a restaurant. It isn’t that I mind food stands. On the contrary, there is pork place that sets up shop in downtown Boone that is incredible. I just prefer that things be true to themselves. Don’t pretend to be a restaurant when you are a glorified food stand.
I looked over the merchandise and although I had fully intended to purchase some memento to remember the trip, I only came home with a belly full of pork and a brain full of memories. It turned out that the merchandise was horribly ugly. Not in the splash the American flag and an eagle on a t-shirt Harley Davidson style ugly. (Also known as Art in the Park ugly – I mean really who looks at a saw blade with a picture of John Wayne painted on it and hopes they have enough wall space left for that.) It was more like they had taken no effort to design anything at all. The shirts and hat only said the name and address of the place in a nondescript font. I decided to pass and I sat down across from Baier.
I was facing the west wall. The west wall was filled with booths. Those booths were filled with people. Note that I write people and not townies. These people seemed to be interested in their own conversations and their own compatriots. When they did look at us, it seemed like they were happy to see us. We weren’t invaders from the big city horde. We were fellow travelers in the night, only seeking the best tenderloin we could find. This was the kind of small town hospitality you read about.
Darrell’s Place is the kind of place that keeps the menus on the table. We were looking at the menus when the waitress came to take our order.
Baier had the unmitigated gall to ask me if I was going to get a tenderloin. Did he think that we had traveled over 2 hours for me to see what kind of burger this joint made? Did he think that I was going to embarrass him like Jay had once embarrassed Jesse and I buy ordering boneless wings at Wings to Go? Did he think when I was offered a heaven, I would say, “No thanks. I’m going to check out purgatory and Hell first and see what they have to offer. If I don’t find anything I like I’ll probably settle on heaven, if the property taxes aren’t too high.” This was the sole purpose of our trip. Why would I drop the ball? Would I look at the menu and be think “Ooh they serve catfish! I wonder if that is any good?”
It was with no small amount of incredulous that I said, “We drove halfway across the state to try this tenderloin, why would I get something else?”
The waitress then said, “You didn’t drive halfway across the state for this.” Then she shot me a look that said, “Keep your BS to a minimum mister. This is Hamlin, Iowa. We only want straight shooters in our midst.”
I was not going to be called out on the carpet for speaking the near truth. So I reiterated. “Actually we did. We got off work and drove from Ames for this. Although perhaps not literally half the state, I think it is in the general ballpark.”
She seemed to accept this information.
The rest of the ordering process went fairly confrontational free. The only hiccup being that they served two different types of fried cheese. Now here is another little secret for you. I love me some fried cheese. When the day comes that I have a massive coronary from eating all this fried food and the doctor tells me no more “fried cheese products”, I’ll have to look him straight in the eye and ask him, “How many more heart attacks do you think I can survive? Just a ballpark figure.”
We reached the compromise that Baier ordered one type of fried cheese and I order the other. I have no doubt that history will record this event as the “Great Fried Cheese Compromise of 2007” and it will be placed next to the other great compromises of history like “The 3/5 Compromise” and the “She Sure Married Beneath Her Compromise” that is seen the world over.
As we sat waiting for our fried food to come our way I noticed that the people of Hamlin sure enjoy playing the lottery. Somebody must have come by our table to visit the lottery machine every few minutes.
After the third person came by to self tax themselves and move the tax burden from the wealthy to the poor, our food arrived. At first I was a little bit worried. The tenderloin looked identical to the tenderloin we had just eaten in Exira. The conspiracy theorist in me was worried. What if The Red Barn had secretly infiltrated Darrell’s Place in a bit of corporate sabotage and stolen the recipe of the greatest tenderloin in Iowa?
One bite into this sandwich assuaged my fears though. Although the breading was identical, the sandwich did in fact taste different. This was indeed the superior sandwich. The only thing that the Exira tenderloin had going for it in comparison is that you have to ask the good folks at Darrell’s Place to toast your bun. Yet having to ask for your bun toasted is a small price to pay for the superior hunk of meat.
The fundamental question remains: “Is it the best tenderloin in the state of Iowa?” It was a great tenderloin. Perhaps the greatest I have ever had, but I am not ready to proclaim it the greatest in the state. I still need to do some research on this subject.
As for the fried cheese? One type of fried cheese was basically the same fried cheese that you can find in about every restaurant in the world, usually under the moniker “cheddar nuggets”. I’m not knocking it. It is some pretty good stuff.
The second fried cheese product was a bit different. It wasn’t quite as good, despite being unique. This fried cheese still had the consistency of a curd. It was good, but not quite as good.
We finished up our meal and paid the bill. As we exited the building I noticed that we had lost most of the light. I grabbed the Maxxum 5D and took some low light shots of the parking lot and the junkyard. After I was satisfied with what I had, I got back in the car and we headed towards home.
The ride home included more polite conversation about religion and the NBA and old times at Dasher Mismanagement and making fun of Guthrie Center. When we were about 20 miles outside of Ogden on 169 Baier said that he was disappointed in Russell. He had told Russell that Greg and Amanda were getting married and Russell hadn’t told Andree.
“Yeah, he never told Andree.”
“I didn’t know Greg and Amanda were getting married.”
The Red Barn
The Red Barn Road Sign
The Last Bite
The Plow in the Oak
What’s Left of the Plow
Slightly Gay Group Photo
Darrell’s Place Sign
Welcome to Hamlin