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How a Deep-Fried Pork Chop Sandwich Became a Classic Montana Meal

food, how a deep-fried pork chop sandwich became a classic montana meal

How a Deep-Fried Pork Chop Sandwich Became a Classic Montana Meal

It’s Americana on a fluted styrofoam plate. A hand-pounded slab of pork loin is thickly encased in batter and deep-fried until it takes on the burnished hue of a soft pretzel—the tenderized meat within staying miraculously juicy. The patty arrives open-faced on a soft bun, dressed with sliced raw onion and a few pickles for sharpness, alongside mustard and mayo packets and a heap of hand-cut fries.

I try not to draw attention as I train my phone camera on the Wop Chop at Muzz & Stan’s Freeway Tavern, a bar just off I-15 en route to Uptown Butte, Montana. Somehow it feels tawdry to interrupt the Thursday evening cadence of this no-fuss joint as some tourist who’s only here for a slick social media capture of its signature fried pork chop sandwich ($9.50, with fries). A patron eyes me from his post at the Keno/Poker machine near the entrance, a Dallas Cowboys tattoo covering the whole of his large right forearm. But the game grabs his eyes long enough for my husband and me to sneak a few photos.

“You know what though? People do it all the time,” Freeway Tavern owner Kathi Faroni reassures me later. “We have a lot of tourists who come through.”

Indeed, the fried pork chop sandwich is a cult favorite dish—not just in Butte but across the Big Sky State—routinely nabbing “best sandwich in Montana” accolades from local and national media alike. This regional nonpareil was invented in the 1920s, by a former fireman named John Burklund who moved to the U.S. from Sweden. Today, it’s an essential road lunch for anyone passing through Butte en route to nearby national parks, every bite like a stick-to-the-ribs rendering of Montana’s past and present.

In 1924, Burklund started selling his breaded-then-battered take on a German pork schnitzel sandwich out of the back of his wagon, which he would park daily at the corner of Mercury and Main Streets uptown, according to an article in the Montana Standard. At the time, the population of Butte was exploding as it became a strategic focal point of Montana’s copper mining boom—earning it the moniker of the Richest Hill on Earth.

At that same intersection, Burklund opened the first location of Pork Chop John’s in 1932. The modest restaurant comprised a countertop, 10 stools, and a walk-up window for to-go orders of pork chop sandwiches, burgers, chips and 10-ounce pop bottles. In the tiny back room, Burklund commenced sandwich prep before dawn just like he did in his home kitchen in the early days: hand-pounding and par-cooking each loin chop, then breading, battering, and par-frying it before finishing it to order in the deep fryer. Though machines have long since taken over the prep, a “loaded” Pork Chop John’s sandwich looks and claims to taste the same, layered with mustard, onion, and pickles on a toasted bun ($4.75 for a single, $6.50 for a double).

“We’re still using the same recipes that basically came with the store,” says Pork Chop John’s owner Ed Orizotti. Orizotti’s late dad John bought the original location in 1969—becoming just the second family (and third John, following Burklund’s son-in-law John Semmens) to own Pork Chop John’s after Semmens retired. When nudged, Orizotti reminds me that the batter recipe and breading technique remain, as ever, top secret.

And why fix what ain’t broke, when the double-battering method lends satisfying crunch and juiciness to the pork? Since Orizotti the younger assumed the helm in 1985, Pork Chop John’s has only evolved to appease customers’ penchant for the extra. A “loaded deluxe” gets you mayo, lettuce, and tomato. You can also add cheese, a fried egg, bacon, or ham; or do as the local high school and college students do and request a “pork burger,” a.k.a. a quarter-pound cheeseburger atop the fried pork chop.

Absurd toppings aside, a traditional pork chop sandwich makes for reliable road food, the kind you can wolf down over a lap napkin in your car without fear of drippage. Indeed, Orizotti tells me some customers admit that they haven’t been inside the restaurant in years, because they only ever order from the walk-up window. That Butte is situated almost halfway between Yellowstone and Glacier National Park makes it an ideal stopover city, even just for lunch. (This very road trip brought me to Butte this summer.)

“We get a lot of people coming back and forth between the parks, stopping in and saying, ‘I want to try the best sandwich in the state!’” Orizotti says.

“This is the place,” wrote KC O from Albuquerque in a Yelp review of Pork Chop John’s in August. “Been there forever and has the charm and character to match.” They add that the pork chop sandwich is “culinary nostalgia nirvana.”

Pork Chop John’s OG storefront on 8 W. Mercury churns out up to 300 sandwiches a day depending on the season (the most popular being summer). Since their tenure began, the Orizottis have spilled operations into all three stories of the original building, added a wholesale arm, and opened a second location downtown—all adding up to roughly three-quarters of a million pork chops sold each year.

By the time the second outpost of Pork Chop John’s arrived in the early ’70s, the Freeway Tavern had established itself as another favorite among tourists and locals, including the late, Butte-born stuntman Evel Knievel, who was best friends with Freeway Tavern co-founder Harry “Muzzy” Faroni. The man—who passed away in 2015—opened the bar with his brother-in-law George “Stan” Stanisich in 1962, the same year his daughter Kathi Faroni was born. She grew up there, picking up peanut shells and loose change off the bar floor to put in her piggy bank. Soon after opening, Muzzy created the Wop Chop, a single-battered variation on the pork chop sandwich whose name cheekily nods to the family’s Italian American heritage. Faroni learned the process at her parents’ sides, which was and is still all done by hand.

“We trim every speck of fat off a whole pork loin then slice it down,” she recites by heart. Then you “pound it down,” then “batter ’em, then deep fry ’em.” She stops short of divulging the batter recipe and tenderizing method. “There’s a way to pound them to make them so tender, and also what you use,” she adds wryly.

On a busy summer day, this brick storefront with the glass-block windows pumps out a few hundred Wop Chops “like it’s nothing,” Faroni says. During slower months, it’s not unusual for them to still sell 200 a day. She’s even been known to box up frozen Wop Chops and mail them as far as New York for customers who ask nicely.

But nothing quite beats eating it in the restaurant, in view of the casino machines and wood-paneled back bar plastered with beer signs, hand-scrawled notes, and crooked new and old family photos, while the highway forever hums outside. The sandwich satisfies in the most elemental way. The pork, mild and succulent beneath its crunchy batter jacket, all but begs for that piquant hit of the pickle, onion and mustard. I decide that its unapologetic simplicity is what makes it so good. The whole experience feels like a microcosm of Montana itself—a beautiful, rugged gateway to the west that opens its arms wide to us wayfarers beneath an endless expanse of sky.

As my husband and I leave to get back on the road, barstool space has grown scarce. A twenty-something pair of what appears to be first-timers wanders in betraying that deer-in-headlights look we had when we walked in. “What’s the name of the sandwich again?” one asks, sliding off his backpack and squinting at the menu. The other, still in her jacket, doesn’t answer; she’s already started snapping photos of the old bar.

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