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Pork & Pigskins Champs: the best concession stand porkchop sandwich in Illinois

Dozens of pork chop sizzle on the grill. Eight men stand in the smoke with sunglasses, steel tongs, and matching aprons. On the apron, a pork chop is stabbed at the end of a devil’s pitchfork. That’s because we’re outside Hall High School in Spring Valley -- home of the Red Devils football team. And home of the best concession stand pork chop sandwich in Illinois. They’ve even got the golden spatula to prove it.

“I don't know what the secret is,” says Luke Simpson. “Maybe the fans. Maybe the way we do it? The camaraderie of the group here?”

His brothers Josh and Dan are grilling tonight too. But everyone grew up together, the whole group went to Hall. And they’ll be the first to tell you, once the smoke is in your eyes and the chops are flying -- everyone’s family.

Last year, they won the 2022 Pork & Pigskins contest. It’s a competition from the Illinois High School Association and the Illinois Pork Producers Association. Last year was the second year they'd held the savory tournament. Over 100 high school concession teams compete. Fans vote during the initial rounds, but then the IHSA deploys judges to football games across the state to pick a winner.

Tracie Henry is the Assistant Executive Director of the Illinois High School Association

“I can say [Hall] scored super well when it came to flavor, seasoning, and then just the tenderness of the meat,” said Henry. “And then there were a few additional comments just about the camaraderie, the huge grill that they had, and a welcoming atmosphere when he went to the game.”

Most of them have grilled chops here for a few years. It’s a tradition that goes back generations in Spring Valley -- at least 30 years. You can even find plaques with the names of the original crew.

The rest of tonight’s crew is happy to introduce themselves too.

“Josh Simpson, Spring Valley, Illinois! Local 11, area 297, rockin’ and rollin’ right through life!”

There’s also Dustin, Dan, and Scott. There’s Lee Simmons –- who was the second recruit on to the crew.

“Cooking pork chops and having a good time watching football on the side of the field -- how could you go wrong?” asked Simmons.

We even have a newcomer to the championship porkchop team.

“I’m Jeff. This is actually my first official night here," he said. "I feel great. This is amazing. You know, giving back to the community and just hanging out with my friends and having a good time."

Tonight is a big night for the Spring Valley community. It’s time to defend their pork chop championship. And it’s the home opener for the varsity football team. The Red Devils face off against the Riverdale Rams.

The game is underway. The home team is already in command on the field and the grill is still smoking. Josh is putting on the finishing touches.

“I like a little char right there, then you kind of know it’s done,” he said, pointing with his tongs.

They’re cooking around 500 chops tonight. You can ask the folks wrapping sandwiches and handing them to customers.

“It’s all about getting them out quick,” they say. “They’re going as fast as we’re wrapping them. No joke.”

And nothing goes to waste. They always feed both teams after the game.

So, what’s the secret to the best pork chop in the state?

“Where we source support from and our seasoning is a big part of it too,” said Luke Simpson. “Here locally in Spring Valley they mix up the seasoning, they cut the chops how we want them. I think that's what really kind of makes us separate from other communities.”

Is it the secret spice mix? Is the secret sauce literally their secret sauce? Dan says there’s something special about how the flavors come together once the pork is grilled, marinated and wrapped.

What do the fans think?

“The seasoning is great,” a couple agrees. “And it’s just a tradition for me. I come to the football game and it’s what I eat.”

Many of the Hall faithful know at least one person behind the grill. It wouldn’t be a Friday night of football and family without buying a pork chop sandwich.

“It’s the guys cooking it. They know how to prepare it,” said one fan, delighted in the news they had won an award for the sandwiches.

Back at the grill, Luke thinks she might be onto something.

“We've known each other since grade school. We all grew up together. Even the old timers -- he was the bus driver. It's a good sense of community for sure,” he said, as the group nods in agreement.

The Red Devils cruise to victory and the grillers retire behind the endzone. Hundreds of chops, all in a night’s work. The proceeds all go to the sports boosters.

So, what’s the secret? Well, it’s not just the sauce or flavor of the chops, it’s the bond of the guys behind the grill. It’s spending time with friends and family. And the tradition of coming out every week to feed fans and support their small community nestled in the Illinois Valley.

If you want to apply to be a pork chop judge, there’s still time! You can find that information at the IHSA’s website.

Peter is an award-winning education reporter who has been at WNIJ since 2018. He’s also the host of Teachers’ Lounge: a listener-driven podcast & radio show telling the story of education through conversations with teachers and students. He grew up in Sandwich, Illinois, and graduated from North Central College. When he’s not writing & reporting, Peter loves to run at forest preserves across northern Illinois, cook, & hang out with his cat.