Prior to June, the only people I know who had ever been to Indianapolis ended up there by accident: Their car broke down during a road trip to someplace else. Indiana was, even to a born-and-raised Ohioan, a drive-through state nestled among a handful of fly-over states. It took a mere weekend spent in Indy to disprove this notion, and I now count city alongside Detroit, St. Louis and my native Cleveland as unfairly overlooked gems of Midwest.
Oh, and the sandwiches.
I didn’t know much about Indianapolis in general, let alone the sandwich scene, so before departing D.C. I reached out to Indianapolis Star food writer Jolene Ketzenberger. Jolene directed me to Super46.com, a sortable database of the 46 best sandwiches in the state developed prior to Super Bowl XLVI by the Indiana Office of Tourism. After lamenting briefly that every city didn’t have a site like it, I promptly wasted half an afternoon drooling all over my desk. Perhaps sensing that I would be overwhelmed, Jolene suggested at the very least that I partake of what she and many Hoosiers consider the town’s signature sandwich: the breaded pork tenderloin.
A breaded tenderloin seemed to me a potentially heavy, oily sandwich. The one I enjoyed hours before hopping my plane back to D.C. at the downtown location of Harry & Izzy’s did not bear that out. The breading was light, crispy, nicely herbed and minimally greasy; the tenderloin was lean but moist; and the spicy mayo, though unnecessary, was mercifully understated. The seeded bun and olive topper made for a handsome presentation consistent with the white-tablecloth establishment, but don’t be fooled: The breaded tenderloin, even at Harry & Izzy’s, has the feel a humble, blue-collar sandwich. As signature sandwiches go, it’s perfectly befitting of unpretentious Indianapolis.
It would be a big mistake to interpret Indy’s unassuming disposition as a lack of ambition, however. There’s a lot of movement happening here in general, and in the sandwich arena that is perhaps best exemplified by the town’s burgeoning food truck scene. As in other cities where trucks are growing in prominence, it seems the low overhead and operational agility encourages risk and experimentation in food. Variety abounds. With apologies to the classic tenderloin, the most satisfying sandwich I had in my short stint in Indy was a straightforward muffaletta courtesy the Little Eataly food truck. Not only did Little Eataly rescue me from a beyond-insipid roast beef wrap from the convention center caterers, their rendition of the New Orleans classic was properly salty, spicy and substantial. (Yeah, it could have been two meals, probably, but portion control is for the birds.)
Throw in a passable Cuban from downtown’s Tata Cuban Café, and it was a sufficiently sandwich-stuffed four days. To say I scratched the surface of what Indianapolis has to offer, both sandwich-wise and generally, would be a gross overstatement. But I saw enough to know that my impression of the town as a place best viewed from the highway could not have been more wrong. From the center of downtown, a 15-minute walk can get you to any of the NCAA museum, the convention center, the basketball arena, the football stadium, the minor-league ballpark, the statehouse, a massive shopping mall and a bevy of surprisingly diverse eateries. Is it glamorous or flashy? Thankfully, not at all. It’s a friendly, well-designed and proud city that takes its sandwiches seriously and knows its stuff.