Ask anyone what Iowa’s most-iconic food is, and the reply is likely pork tenderloin. With the fried pork often plate size or larger, it’s a given the tenderloin will make its bun seem slider sized. While the tenderloin likely does rate as the state’s top food, Iowa is also known as the loose meat capital of the world, as well as serving up delicious steaks. So, where does one go to enjoy Iowa’s outstanding dishes? Here’s a look at some of the iconic restaurants around the state.
Where: Mason City
For the best steak in Iowa, as well as one of the best in the Midwest, head to Mason City’s Northwestern Steakhouse. Open since 1920, the steakhouse was originally known as Pete’s Place, and was located between two cement plants. The restaurant moved to its present location in 1954, changing its name to Northwestern Steakhouse. Tony Papouchis bought the restaurant from his partner in 1965, and it’s been a family business ever since.
With wooden booths and old-time movie posters, the steakhouse provides a feel of yesteryear. People line up mid-afternoon, waiting for their turn to enter the old brick building to savor the delicious Greek-seasoned steaks on the menu. Along with a Greek-infused salad, a Northwestern steak tastes like no other you’ve eaten. The unique flavor is forged from being broiled with Greek seasonings. From a filet to top sirloin, the Greek-style steaks will quickly find a spot on your culinary Mount Rushmore.
You’ll crave wanting another visit to the Mason City eatery. All dinners — chicken, shrimp, lamb, and Canadian walleye are also served — come with a small salad, potato or rice, and bread rolls. Add a side of spaghetti for a small charge (you’ll love it).
Northwestern Steakhouse opens at 5 p.m. (closed on Sunday), and reservations are allowed for parties of six or more. Others can call for reservations after 4:30 p.m. Northwestern has an upstairs lounge, where you can wait until it’s your turn for dinner.
Where: Des Moines
An original barbecue joint in the Drake University neighborhood, Jethro’s BBQ has grown to become a Des Moines favorite. While it decided to bid adieu to the Bulldogs’ neighborhood, locals and visitors alike can enjoy Iowa barbecue at seven locations including an eatery in Ames.
Known for delicious BBQ such as baby back pork ribs, barbecue sandwiches and platters featuring one or two meats, as well as chicken and steaks, there are two sandwiches that may lead to scratching your head or rubbing your belly with fullness.
- “The World Famous Adam Emmenecker” — named after one of Drake’s best basketball players and featured on television’s “Man vs Food” — includes a ton of food, with an Iowa pork tenderloin, Angus steak burger, Texas brisket, bacon, fried cheese, buffalo chicken tenders, and cheese sauce between two buns, as well as one side.
- “The Jethro” — as seen on the Food Network — features a giant pork tenderloin, pulled pork, house-smoked pit ham, and a double order of thick slab bacon and served on a bun.
These sandwiches are only for the bravest of the brave eaters (you may want to leave these challenges to the professionals).
Canteen Lunch in the Alley
Ottumwa is a classic Iowa community, with the farmhouse used as inspiration for the “American Gothic” not far from town. In town, you’ll find another famous Iowa standard — loose meat sandwiches — at Canteen Lunch in the Alley in a downtown alley.
For more than 90 years, locals have stopped in for lunch, which is, simply, loose ground beef spread on a hamburger bun, topped with mustard, ketchup, cheese, onion, and pickles, and served on waxed paper, with a spoon, so you can enjoy every bite. Grab a bag of chips, soda or pop, and take your order to go, unless you can find an open stool at the counter or one of the few tables (seating capacity is about 20 people).
The Canteen goes through about 150 pounds of ground beef weekly. The eatery was the inspiration for the loose meat restaurant featured on the television series “Roseanne,” since Roseanne Barr’s former husband, Tom Arnold, is an Ottumwa native, and the couple occasionally visited the area. The classic restaurant in a small square brick building and has been in the same spot since opening its doors in 1929.
Fun fact: Professional eating champion Joey Chestnut gorged himself with 26 ½ sandwiches in less than 10 minutes during a 2018 visit.
Pink Poodle Steakhouse
Located on Old Lincoln Highway in Crescent, Pink Poodle Steakhouse is a throwback to steakhouses of yesteryear. There’s nothing fancy about the nearly 70-year-old restaurant, just comfortable seating and great food – steaks, chicken, fish, and, of course, its famous prime rib.
With three cuts — regular, Cut and a half, and Diamond Jim — you can decide if you want to have room on your plate for your potato (regular cut) or have the prime rib take up the plate or really take up your plate (your sides will be served on separate dishes). If you go with one of the larger cuts, you’ll be guaranteed to have leftovers (excellent with eggs for breakfast).
While it continually challenges for the best prime rib in the Omaha area (and is served nightly), the Pink Poodle also has excellent steaks and fried chicken. You really can’t go wrong with your dinner choice. The restaurant is large, seating about 200 or so on a busy night, but you don’t feel crowded.
Harkening back to its days as a stop on the old US Highway 30, take a stroll around the restaurant, and you’ll see vintage dolls and other antiques on display.
A Decorah favorite since opening its doors in 1953, Mabe’s Pizza wasn’t always a pizza joint. Opening as Mabel’s Lunchroom, and almost instantly popular with students from nearby Luther College, Mabel White let customers make their own sandwiches.
Then, one day, life changed for the Scandinavian city’s restaurant guru. A student asked if he could make his own pizza. Unaware of what a pizza was (it wasn’t wildly known back then), she agreed. From that day on, it seemed Mabel’s Lunchroom was more like Mabel’s Pizzeria. Liking the idea, the restaurant changed its name to Mabe’s Pizza, and the rest, as they say, is history.
Using fresh ingredients, each pizza continues to be made by hand, using a thin crust. Layering the crust with red sauce, meat, veggies, cheese — all the toppings! — Mabe’s Pizza is the place for a round pie. With sizes varying from nine to 16 inches, there’s enough to go around for everyone at your table. The pizza — taco is a favorite, with nacho chips on top — is cut in squares.
With 13 styles -from regular (sausage, pepperoni, and cheese) to chicken mushroom alfredo (chicken, mushrooms, garlic, and a blend of cheeses on top of an alfredo base) – you’ll discover a favorite. You can even create your own, though you won’t be able to put it together like the Luther College student, who started the trend. Mabe’s also offers burgers, pasta, chicken dinners, and salads.
Zakeer’s Family Restaurant
Where: Fort Dodge
Known for its smothered hashbrowns, Zakeer’s Family Restaurant has been a local must for more than six decades. With a bed of hashbrowns, the smothering begins with a heaping serving of sausage gravy and topped with two eggs of your choice. Add a side of ham, bacon, or sausage to complete the breakfast. Of course, you can always order standard breakfast fare, as well as its outstanding pancakes.
With a homey feel, Zakeer’s features Americana décor, along with framed newspaper copies of the eatery’s history. The Zakeer family owned the restaurant for more than 35 years before selling it in the mid-1990s. Tommy Zakeer bought the eatery in 1998, returning it to the family fold. He honored his parents’ legacy with the décor. Zakeer’s also serves lunch, with specials ranging from salmon to lasagna. The restaurant is open 6:30 a.m.-2 p.m. (1 p.m. Sunday) Tuesday-Sunday.
Zombie Burger + Drink Lab
Where: Des Moines
Beware of the undead sitting around at Zombie Burger + Drink Lab. The downtown Des Moines restaurant is a favorite with locals and visitors, serving 28 types of burgers with names such as 28 Days Later, Dawn of the Dead, and They’re Coming to Get You Barbara. Each offers a unique take of the sandwich, with fried jalapenos and cheese croquettes among the toppings.
Along with cute menus highlighting the undead choices, the Drink Lab offers creations that challenge the definition of a malt or shake. With names such as Zombie Bride Wedding Cake and Zombie Joe, the restaurant takes a fun turn at milkshakes, with flavors featuring yellow cake mix, chocolate cereal, and graham cracker pieces. Shakes can be served with alcohol mixed in or without. Zombie Burger has two locations in the Des Moines area, downtown and Jordan Creek.
Jimmy Jack’s Rib Shack
Where: Iowa City
In the Land of the Hawkeyes, they pack ‘em in at Jimmy Jack’s Rib Shack. A longtime favorite with the Big Ten school’s fans, Jimmy Jack’s serves some of the best barbecue north of the Mason-Dixon Line (and Missouri). Opened in 2005, the small rib joint quickly became a favorite, where you’ll find people picking up orders on Game Day (or any other day).
With ribs, sausage, and wings, Jimmy Jack’s annually ranks among the best not only in Iowa, but across the United States. While you can’t go wrong with anything you order, you may want to navigate to the ribs, with their Jimmy jack’s rub and sauces. If you prefer your food with wings, the smoked wings – tossed in mild or hot sauce – will hit the spot. Jimmy Jack’s also serves a variety of sandwiches and salads.
Tip: Always order some corn bread with your meal.
Ox Yoke Inn
Serving family-style meals at Amana Colonies since 1940, the Ox Yoke Inn has developed a loyal following over the past nine decades. Meals include meats such as fried chicken, ham with pineapple sauce, and roast beef, joined by sides cottage cheese, mashed potatoes and gravy, salad, and a bread basket. Sauerkraut and pickled beets can be requested.
If you prefer entrée-sized meals, those are also available, along with a variety sandwiches, including Iowa favorite pork tenderloin and an Angus steak burger. With large portions, you’ll be challenged to leave hungry!
Where: Des Moines
Once home to the oldest Chinese restaurant in the United States, Fong’s Pizza opened and has called downtown Des Moines home since 2009, paying tribute to the King Ying Low legacy with unique takes on the Italian pie. A combination of Asian, Italian, and Polynesian tastes come into play with pizzas such as the crab Rangoon pizza, with a crab rangoon base and toppings that create a crab rangoon on pizza dough.
Other flavors include the General Tso (with Tso sauce as the base), Polynesian with toppings such as Canadian bacon, fresh pineapple, Asiago and Mozarella cheese, atop of the house sauce. “Iowa Favorites” include Honey and Garlic Pizza (alfredo sauce, garlic, honey, and mozzarella) and the Iowa, with barbecue sauce, Canadian bacon, bacon, pulled pork, corn, and mozzarella cheese with a BBQ lattice.
Appetizers feature Chinese Cheesesticks with mozzarella cheese fried inside egg rolls. Fong’s Pizza, with locations in Ankeny and Cedar Rapids, also offers gluten-free dough.
From great steak and barbecue to the state’s famous pork tenderloin, as well as unique spins on pizza, Iowa is home to outstanding and iconic restaurants. Bring an appetite, because Iowans do food up big.