My first pork tenderloin sandwich, at Harry’s Chocolate Shop in West Lafayette, Indiana, was a pretty classic rendition: a craggy, tender fried piece of pork flopping out of its kaiser bun and garnished with sliced raw onions and mustard. My second, from Marvin’s in Greencastle, was, too, but that one had pickle slices and came on a sub roll.
My third, however, from Strange Bird in Indianapolis, was far from traditional. The pork was crusted with coconut, topped with melted American cheese, slicked with passionfruit special sauce, layered with shredded lettuce and pickles, and tucked into a Hawaiian roll. A cocktail cherry on a toothpick held the massive sandwich together.
Was it an Indiana pork tenderloin? The oversized slab of meat dwarfing the bun identified it as such, though the flavors took it outside the realm of any I’ve seen before. Before we answer that question, I should explain where I ate it.
The pork was crusted with coconut, topped with melted American cheese, slicked with passionfruit special sauce, layered with shredded lettuce and pickles, and tucked into a Hawaiian roll. A cocktail cherry on a toothpick held the massive sandwich together.
Strange Bird is a throwback bar in Indianapolis’s Irvington neighborhood that serves tiki classics and a wide selection of rums, plus food that pairs well with the sweeter, fruitier flavors on the cocktail menu. Whereas many tropical bars around the country turn to egg rolls or crab Rangoon to keep drinkers sated, Strange Bird offers snacks that I’d describe as Indiana-meets-South Pacific—a menu of Hoosier staples reimagined in a tiki context.
The poke fries start with a Midwest state fair staple, ribbon-cut potatoes, and come loaded with salmon, sriracha mayo, furikake, and scallions. There are fried mushrooms, but hold the ranch: here, they’re shiitakes with black vinegar-honey aioli and Chinese hot mustard for dipping. And there’s a Thai tea sugar cream pie, an ingenious riff on the classic Hoosier sugar cream pie that’s flavored like Thai iced tea and finished with lime zest.
While I’ve seen restaurants serve cheffed-up versions of regional dishes for years, I haven’t yet encountered a bar or restaurant that so completely reimagines Midwestern cuisine through the lens of another tradition. So how did the Strange Bird team—brothers Neal and Paul Warner plus Chris and Aly Benedyk from Love Handle, a downtown comfort food café—come up with this vision of Hoosier fare?
“We knew from the get-go that food was important,” Neal Warner says. “Irvington isn’t a ‘stay out til two or three drinking cocktails’ kind of neighborhood. It’s more ‘coming for one or two drinks and having dinner.’” He would know. He lives there.
“We knew it would be important to put some dishes on the menu that felt familiar,” he says. “We can say: ‘Would you like a tenderloin, or fried mushrooms?’ For a guest who’s used to those items in a more traditional Hoosier environment, they’ll order it and still be really into it.” But for the guest who’s a serious food lover? “You can say, ‘The shiitakes are served with black vinegar aioli and made with a tempura batter.’”
Approaching Hoosier favorites with an eye toward reinvention also gave them a chance to craft their ideal versions. “If there’s one dish that’s Indiana, it’s the tenderloin,” Warner says. “But like a lot of classic dishes, they often have issues when done the standard way. How many times have you eaten a pork tenderloin that’s pretty dry?” So they tweaked the pork to their standards, rethinking the breading and brine, and how thin to pound it. “Once we had that, we started adding ingredients like passionfruit sauce, though we stuck with shredded iceberg rather than fancy lettuce,” he says. “We can pick and choose what we love about each dish.”
So, yes, that coconut-crusted tenderloin is indeed a tribute to Indiana tradition. And Strange Bird is an Indiana bar, Warner says, offering an escapist take on “Hoosier drinking” to a hungry audience in Indianapolis.