The prepackaged, deep-fried tenderloin dinner at Loretta's Café (see review) is probably not the best example of the classic tenderloin sandwich. In fact, the best tenderloin in the area isn't in Kansas City at all, but 46 miles away in St. Joseph, at the Bottoms Up Bar & Grill (2007 St. Joseph Avenue). The storefront bar is located in a neighborhood with a long-vacant movie house and a boarded-up, 100-year-old crumbling brick hulk across the street. ("It's not the best part of town," warned a Kansas City friend who grew up there.) But the aging district is part of the ungentrified old French Bottoms, where the first French-born settlers laid claim to this riverfront city.
I never would have stumbled across the place if I hadn't received a news clipping from a Joplin reader, Evelyn Bond, who was intrigued by an Associated Press story in the Joplin Globe about one of the biggest tenderloin sandwiches in the Midwest. The massive "original" tenderloin served at Bottom's Up is so big, reads the article, that it's packed in a sixteen-inch pizza box if you take it to go.
The original sandwich is one of ten different tenderloin possibilities -- in different sizes, widths and flavors -- at the six-year-old restaurant, which is owned by three St. Joseph couples: Cindy and Jerry Williams; Cindy's sister, Rhonda LaFave, and her husband, Allen; and Rhonda's son, Allen Bell LaFave, and his wife, Heidi. They all take turns bartending and pounding out, breading and deep frying or grilling fresh pork. The best-selling sandwich is named for Cindy's mother, Esther, who suggested a version that wasn't pounded but double-dipped in flour and fried. The slightly thick, crispy "Mommy Esther" comes with cheese (American, Swiss or pepper jack) or without, but is always heaped with lettuce, tomato and pickles.
One Saturday afternoon I amazed myself by eating a whole one -- along with french fries and lightly breaded "onion petals" dipped in ranch dressing -- at a single sitting. My snooty friend John (who called the place "a nice, clean honky-tonk") was happy that he decided to go exotic and order the "Santa Fe" version with sautéed onions, peppers, mushrooms and hot pepper cheese.
I'm happy that Bottom's Up is far enough away that I can't be tempted to eat there more frequently. Too many pork tenderloins make me feel like a pig.