Taking The Culinary ‘Widow Maker Tour’ Of Illinois

MACOMB, Ill. — Call it the Widow Maker Tour.

Call it silly for a middle-aged man to do. Call it immature. Or just plain dumb.

Also call it delicious.

And call somebody else with your complaints.

In Macomb to cover the North Dakota State football game at Western Illinois, I had free time Friday to pursue one of life’s great culinary pleasures, the pork tenderloin sandwich, in the heart of the Tenderloin Belt (a swath of Middle America that cuts through Iowa, Illinois and Indiana).

My love for a proper pork tenderloin sandwich is well-documented, as are my as-yet-unheeded calls for a Fargo-Moorhead restaurant or bar to add this delightful cuisine to its menu. So when I get the chance a few times a year to travel to the Belt, I take advantage.

That was the plan Friday and my tour guide was going to be friend Nick Vlahos of Peoria, Ill., himself a pork tenderloin connoisseur. The destination was Spoonies, a bar and grill in the tiny hamlet (gravel streets, population 400) of London Mills, about 40 minutes from both Macomb and Peoria.

Repeat: That was the plan. I was going to eat a light breakfast, perhaps have a small snack for lunch and then make a pig of myself with the Spoonies pork tenderloin — which is regionally famous for its deliciousness and heft (each tenderloin averages two pounds).

And then the horseshoe sandwich happened. This is when an innocent quest for a pork tenderloin sandwich became the Widow Maker Tour.

A horseshoe sandwich at the Jackson Street Pub.

While mentioning my love for the tenderloin while chatting with Western Illinois football radio analyst Tom Cody, Tom mentioned that I needed to try the famed horseshoe sandwich while I was in town. My response was simple: “What the hell is a horseshoe sandwich?”

Answer: A pile of decadent things thrown onto a plate. Texas toast, a meat (traditionally a hamburger patty), French fries, cheese sauce are the minimums. Sauteed onions, mushrooms and peppers are options. Pickle slices, jalapeno peppers and chili, too. As are, oddly, vegetables like lettuce and tomatoes.

The toast goes on the plate first, followed by the hamburger patty, then the fries. The cheese sauce is poured on top. Tom recommended the Jackson Street Pub in Macomb for the best in town.

Jackson Street Pub, Macomb, Ill.

Who could pass up this? Well, perhaps somebody who had a date with a two-pound pork tenderloin later in the evening. But some things need to be experienced, and a horseshoe sandwich is one of those things.

I met former Western Illinois sports information director Patrick Osterman at the Jackson Street Pub and he and our server gave me the horseshoe sandwich rundown. It was invented in Springfield, Ill., and restaurants and bars in other nearby Illinois cities soon began to offer it. The original horseshoe included a hamburger patty for the meat, but most places offer several options and combinations.

The Jackson Street Pub, for example, offers a pork tenderloin horseshoe sandwich. Seems like overkill.

The meats available on the Jackson Street Pub horseshoe sandwich.

Two sizes are offered — the full size and the half-size “pony” horseshoe sandwich. Patrick and I both ordered the pony size. He had grilled chicken, I had the traditional hamburger patty. The Jackson Street Pub actually serves its horseshoe with lattice fries (waffle fries), with the option of having seasoned French fries substituted.

The horseshoe sandwich is as decadent, filling, fat-filled and salty as one could imagine with all that food piled onto a plate and covered in cheese sauce. It is also delicious, as anything covered in cheese sauce would be. I had designs on eating about half of it, knowing I had the Spoonies experience coming up later. Nope. I cleaned my plate.

Nick Vlahos of Peoria, Ill., met me in London Mills to give me the lowdown on the Spoonies pork tenderloin.

Four hours later, it was on to Spoonies. The drive from Macomb to this tiny town is interesting — does Illinois not believe in shoulders and gradually sloping ditches on its rural highways? The bar itself is somewhat famous for its huge pork tenderloin sandwich. Nick himself wrote about it in his newspaper, the Peoria Journal Star, several months ago.

The tenderloin itself is massive, covering almost an entire dinner plate. The meat is placed between the halves of a tiny split bun, almost as comic relief. The usual accoutrements are offered — pickles, onions, lettuce, tomatoes. As has already been well-reported in this space, I prefer my pork tenderloins with raw onions and yellow mustard. Ketchup, tomatoes and lettuce on a pork tenderloin are a criminal offense.

The Spoonies’ hook might be the size of the tenderloin, and it is intimidating to see that disc of pork placed before you, but it’s also a quality cut of meat. The tenderloin is thick even though it’s been pounded and the breading is not overwhelming.

It’s served with a fork and knife.

The price is right, too: $9 for the tenderloin (and $2.50 for a bottle of Bud Light).

Spoonies has been serving the outsized sandwich for about eight years and our server said that customers drive from all points of Illinois and surrounding states to get a taste.

The Spoonies pork tenderloin sandwich weighs in at two pounds.

Confession: I ate only about one-third of the Spoonies sandwich. Even the pony-sized horseshoe sandwich was too much.

Saturday morning breakfast at my hotel in Macomb was fresh fruit and a bowl of oatmeal. It was a sad attempt to offset the approximately 15,000 calories I consumed the day prior at the Jackson Street Pub and Spoonies.

So now, Fargo-Moorhead restaurateurs, I’ve offered two gourmet meals that would go over nicely in our town — the pork tenderloin and the horseshoe sandwich. Get on it, please.