It’s time to hit the Tenderloin Trail. Fourteen establishments and 14 delectable pieces of pork — all yours for the sampling — and a T-shirt at the end to boot.

In Iowa, that’s a trip to heaven.

The Iowa Tenderloin Trail is the brainchild of the Iowa Pork Producers Association (IPPA). Nearly one year in the making, the trail takes travelers to some of the best tenderloins in the state. A downloadable passport tracks their progress.

“We were inspired by other food trails and wanted something that would be a tribute to the state,” says Kelsey Sutter, who handles marketing programs for IPPA. “Some places do wine or ice cream. Iowa is the leading pork producing state in the nation. When you think pork, you think Iowa. So what better way to feature our state and the pork industry?”

For several years, IPPA has sponsored the best breaded pork tenderloin contest, singling out one restaurant and its specialty a year for recognition. The trail includes several past winners, as well as close seconds.

Those making a spot on the trail often came by way of personal recommendation. Gov. Kim Reynolds suggested the Brick Street Market & Cafe in Bondurant. IPPA staff nominated the Other Place in Clive, a popular lunch site near IPPA offices. A Facebook page, Pursing Pork Tenderloin Sandwiches, chim­ed in with a poll. The winner was the Stout’s Irish Pub & Grill in Clinton.

The Belmond Drive-In, 2015 winner of the best breaded pork tenderloin honors, made the list. For owner Joe McFarland, that means a continuation of the recognition and traffic.

“It’s definitely changed our business,” says McFarland, who says he gets a couple people a day working the Tenderloin Trail.

With the Tenderloin Trail passport, tenderloin connoisseurs can make their way across the state — sandwich to sandwich. At each stop, the passport is stamped. Folks can then return the passport with at least 10 stamps to IPPA for their “Conquered the Iowa Tenderloin Trail” T-shirt.

Passports are available at rest stops and welcome centers across the state, or at the IPPA office and website,

“This is a way for everyone to enjoy an Iowa favorite,” says Sutter, “and have fun doing it.” While folks from out of state may not finish the trail, IPPA urges guests to give it a shot. At least they’ll take home memories of great Iowa pork.

The breaded pork tenderloin sandwich is a Midwest delicacy unknown to most parts of the country. “You can’t go to Georgia or New York and find it on the menu,” Sutter explains.

At the Belmond Drive-in, the sandwich is simple; the pork is fresh. Center cut loin arrives daily from Davis Meats across town on Main Street Belmond and is cut into 4-ounce slices. McFarland runs the slices through a manual tenderizer, then hand pounds them out with a meat tenderizer hammer. The loins are treated to an egg wash and simple breadcrumb breading.

“I don’t use any spices,” says McFarland. “I let the pork speak for itself.”

The breaded tenderloins at the Belmond Drive-In don’t just speak, they scream “Iowa fresh pork.” The bun, garnishes and condiments are barely necessary; the fresh flavor of the meat dominates and delights.

Each tenderloin on the trail has its own signature style and flavor, and loyal local backing. The Iowa Tenderloin Trail now gives others a reason to stretch their pork-loving wings. Each establishment, of course, also has its own ambiance and personality.

At the Belmond Drive-In, the tenderloins come with a smile and darn friendly service, and a full array of ice cream treats.

Sutter says since the trail was announced in June, response has been good. A Google map of the trail has garnered 20,000 views. Some even completed the trail before the Iowa State Fair to qualify for a meal voucher at the pork tent.

“After all the planning, it’s just great that it is finally out for everyone to enjoy,” says Sutter. “We all love to support local restaurants, and pork.”

The Iowa Tenderloin Trail passport is good for two years and can be downloaded at IPPA plans to redo the trail with a new group of eateries in 2019. Yes, suggestions are welcome.

Queck-Matzie is a freelance writer from Fontanelle.