Though I've lived in Chicago for nearly 22 years, until recently I'd never set foot in Iowa. But when an editor came back from a road trip raving about loose-meat sandwiches and Niman ham with pepper foam and cauliflower polenta, I got excited about our neighbor to the west. My friend Michelle and I set out on Easter weekend, primed to sample a mix of regional specialties and vanguard cuisine.
Our first stop was Solon, a burg of less than 2,000 residents near Cedar Rapids and Iowa City. Our destination was Joensy's Restaurant (101 W. Main St., 319-624-2914). This unassuming, timeworn dive, with large-screen TVs, rickety tables, and a stale-beer odor, claims to make the state's biggest and best pork tenderloin sandwich, and that's no small contention: 266 restaurants were nominated in last year's contest, sponsored by the Iowa Pork Producers Association, to name the best pork tenderloin sandwich. (The Dairy Sweet in Dunlap was the winner.)
The Joensy's version features an impossibly long and flat slab of pork tenderloin that's breaded, deep-fried, and served on a hamburger bun, usually with onions and mustard. I'll buy the restaurant's claim that it's the biggest--the thing was larger than my head. But though just about anything tastes good fried, and our sandwiches were fun to wrestle with, they were oddly flavorless. As our waitress removed the generous portions we didn't finish, she told us about one patron who on two different occasions downed three of the monsters in one sitting.
From Solon we headed west to Des Moines. We'd originally hoped to stop in nearby Waukee to visit the restaurant at L.T. Organic Farm (3241 Ute Ave., 515-987-3561), started by ex-Chicagoans L.T. and Ahilia Bhramdat in the late 90s, but it didn't open until Mother's Day. Instead we sampled the city's Italian culture by grabbing dinner at Gino's (2809 Sixth Ave., 515-282-4029), an old-school restaurant that seems frozen in the early 60s. The menu emphasizes the standard red-sauce dishes, and we were more than pleased with the homemade cavatelli, which came smothered in marinara sauce with crumbled homemade sausage and a thick layer of melted mozzarella.
The only other customers in the place were an elderly foursome celebrating somebody's birthday with a round of grasshoppers. Thinking we might try an equally quaint cocktail, we visited the spot's gorgeously appointed lounge after dinner. The bartender suggested an Irish nut--one part Bailey's, one part Frangelico. "It's nutty," explained her coworker, who was smoking a very long cigarette. We decided on scotch.
The next morning we headed north to Marshalltown, home of Taylor's Maid-Rite (106 S. Third Ave., 641-753-9684 or maidrite.com), which opened in 1928 and is one of the first stores in the national Maid-Rite fast-food chain. Locations around the midwest (the one nearest Chicago is in Rockford) offer sandwiches, broasted chicken, and hot dogs, but Taylor's, which only has counter service, concentrates on the Maid-Rite--a loose-meat sandwich of steamed, lightly seasoned ground beef and minced onions in a hamburger bun with a smear of yellow mustard. Chili was the only other offering besides shakes and desserts.
Our sandwiches came served with a spoon, whose purpose became clear after meat spilled onto the wrapping paper as we bit in; the Maid-Rite tasted nearly as bland as the Joensy's pork tenderloin sandwich, but there was something comforting about spooning up the spillage. Much like Gino's, the place feels lost in time and has a loyal clientele. An elderly couple sat on stools next to us; they'd come in specifically for the coffee and chocolate chip cookies.
Taylor's Maid-Rite is also known for its pies, but for dessert we decided to head down the street to Stone's Restaurant (507 S. Third Ave., 641-753-3626) to try its famous Mile High Lemon Chiffon Pie. Created by one of the store's owners in the 1910s, it's an impressive feat of architecture, standing no less than eight inches high. Eating the spongy critter was a little disgusting, though--imagine a lemon-flavored omelet, and you'll get an idea of the taste and texture.
Heading back east the next day, we had dinner at the Lincoln Cafe in Mount Vernon (117 First St. W, 319-895-4041 or foodisimportant.com), a welcome antidote to the heart-destroying cuisine we'd been ingesting. The place reminded us a little of Lula Cafe, boasting a simple menu of sandwiches enhanced by several elegant and elaborate specials. We shared a lovely soup made from garlic greens and swooned over our entrees: a succulent pork tenderloin in a red curry sauce, accented by ginger-pineapple relish, a mint spring roll, and lime coleslaw; and a tender rainbow trout with crawfish, organic grits, spicy tomato confit, and prosciutto. The desserts were equally ambitious: an apple mousse came with caramelized, apple-filled phyllo and date ice cream, and a chocolate flan was served with banana chips, chocolate shavings, and pumpkin ice cream.
We left feeling full, but not clutching our bellies in agony. That's something we couldn't say about our final meal, at the Ronneburg Restaurant in Amana (4408 220th Trail, 319-622-3641), one of a group of quaint, now touristy villages settled by German immigrants in the 1850s. The Ronneburg is a German restaurant, but though the sauerbraten with spaetzle was terrific (if leaden) comfort food, the baked ham and roast beef Easter special gave me bad flashbacks to Boy Scout banquets of my youth. The ultrathin slices of ham and beef were so dry they seemed sun cured, while the all-you-can-eat sides (mashed potatoes, green beans, red cabbage) all tasted either boxed or canned. The electric green of the string beans belied how overcooked they were--they practically turned to dust on the tongue. And the gravy for the potatoes was so viscous a spoon stood straight up in the bowl.
We had few complaints about our lodgings, though. We booked a deluxe room at Rawson's Bed and Breakfast in Homestead (4424 V St., 319-622-6035 or 800-637-6035), which featured a two-person hot tub by the foot of the queen bed. When I called to reserve the room our host, Janis, warned me that she wouldn't be making her typical Sunday breakfast, since Easter was the one day she took off. But she still managed to leave a dizzying array of cereals, blueberry muffins from a mix, a banana streusel, and a pina colada yogurt with a maple topping. The house was decked out with homey touches, like a year-round Christmas display and a large selection of handmade quilts for sale. I'd gladly go back if I ever decided to eat my way through Iowa again. Maybe in another 22 years.
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): illustrations/Paul Dolan.