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On The Hunt For Iowa’s Best Loose Meat Sandwich | Recipe

Loose meat sandwich just might be Iowa’s best comfort food. The savory sandwich is a lot like a hamburger, but a bit messier. Whether you want to find Iowa’s best loose meat sandwich, or you want to make the recipe yourself, this post has the information you need. Hope you’re hungry!

What exactly is a loose meat sandwich?

Somewhere in the intersection of hamburger and sloppy joe, you’ll find loose meat sandwiches. In Iowa, they go by the name tavern or canteen in some parts; some call them Maid Rites. They’re a tasty sandwich, whatever you call them.

Most agree that the loose meat sandwich consists of ground beef mixed with sautéed onions and served on a bun. It could be topped like a burger, with things like ketchup and mustard, or maybe pickles or cheese.

According to the Des Moines Register, the local chain Maid-Rite first opened in Muscatine in 1926.

Where to find the best sandwich in Iowa 

My introduction to taverns was in Sioux City at the highly recommended Miles Inn. It was a dive, but a popular one. The sandwich was good, the beer was cheap. No complaints.

Taste Atlas ranks Miles Inn as No. 1, followed by:

2. Taylor’s Maid-Rite in Marshallton

3. Bob’s Drive Inn in Le Mars

4. Tastee In & Out in Sioux City

5. Canteen Lunch in the Alley in Ottumwa

6. 10th Street Station in Fort Madison

7. Montgomery’s Sandwich Shop in Grinnell

8. Lewright Eats in Eagle Grove

Up-close photo of a loose meat sandwich, a sandwich Iowa is known for

USA Today readers had those places ranked in a different order, with a few more additions:

  1. Canteen Lunch in the Alley – Ottumwa
  2. Bob’s Drive-Inn – Le Mars
  3. Miles Inn – Sioux City
  4. 10th Street Station – Fort Madison
  5. Montgomery’s Sandwich Shop – Grinnell
  6. Tastee Inn & Out – Sioux City
  7. Lewright Meats – Eagle Grove 
  8. Ross’ 24 Hours Diner – Bettendorf
  9. Maid-Rite – Multiple Locations
  10. Billy Boy Drive Thru – Sioux City

Up-close photo of a loose meat sandwich with pickles and mustard

The lists are pretty similar, so it’s safe to say you can’t go wrong choosing a restaurant from either list. Loose meat sandwiches are so iconic to Iowa though, trying one is a must-do when you visit the state!

Recipe for loose meat sandwiches

Want to make loose meat sandwiches at home? It’s easy!

Loose Meat Sandwiches

Serves: 6

1 pound ground beef (85%)

Salt & pepper

¼ cup chopped white onion

1 tablespoon yellow mustard

1 cup water

6 hamburger buns

Top with: mustard, pickles, chopped white onion (raw)


In a large sautee pan over medium high heat flatten beef to cover the bottom of the pan, add salt & pepper, chopped onion, mustard, and water. Simmer for 10-12 minutes or until no longer pink and the water has evaporated. Occasionally stir to break up the burger. 

Top hamburger buns with a large scoop of loose meat. Top with mustard, pickles, and additional chopped onion.

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Bill Schmidt

Thursday 25th of January 2024

I matriculated to Ottumwa's Catholic Central High School in January 1953, the last semester it existed. As any one familiar with that city knows, it is geographically divided by the Des Moines River. In those days, the river also divided that city culturally. CCHS was located on the "northside" adjacent to St. Mary's Church, which still stands. During my short time at CCHS, I was first introduced to the "Canteen". I fell instantly in in love with them. Walsh High School succeeded CCHS in the Fall of 1953. In its early years, Walsh High was located on the "southside". Elmer's Cafe, a small place on North Vine Street about 3 or 4 blocks away from the Walsh High location in those days, also featured a loose meat sandwich that rivaled or exceeded the Canteen product. Elmer's wife, whose name I cannot recall, continued operating the cafe following Elmer's unfortunate demise. Through her grief she did as good a job with the sandwich as Elmer ever did. After graduating from Walsh, I went on to get degrees from ISU and then Drake. Follow that, I left the state and worked in places from one end of the country to the other before ending up in San Francisco. Through it all I've never had a sandwich of any kind anywhere that I wouldn't have traded instantly for an Elmer's or a Canteen.


Tuesday 23rd of August 2022

Sloppy Joes with out the barbecue sauce. How boring! Leave it to a hawkeye!

K.D. Mick

Sunday 3rd of April 2022

This writer is so confused about loose meat sandwiches !! They are all different items and all prepared differently !! The only Maid Rite, that I'm aware of, that still uses finely ground beef cooked in a special cast iron cooker with zero additives is Taylor's in Marshalltown. Bob's Drive Inn in Lemars has fantastic Taverns ( different but equally delicious sandwich ) The Canteen in Ottumwa has their version called a Canteen and it is great as well ( different too ) But you are comparing apples, oranges and pears to say they are all the same sandwich.


Tuesday 23rd of August 2022

@K.D. Mick, Glad I live in Illinois!


Thursday 31st of March 2022

I’m from Muscatine and my grandmother worked Maid-Rite for over 17 years way back in the 50’s and 60’s she worked for the Angells which was a son to the family who started them. I worked there as well in the 70’s and worked for the grandson. I make homemade all the time for different occasions sometimes over 30 lbs of beef at a time. I have had so many people ask me how I make mine because they taste like the original ones all I can say is my grandma taught me so so many years ago and there were no fresh onions on them it was minced onions soaked in water

Norma Heat

Saturday 26th of March 2022

I worked at Maid Rite when I was 16, now 86. The meat was cooked in a cast iron griddled that slanted, nothing was added to meat, no water or beef broth. The cooked meat was piled in slanted end of grill, when we warmed for sandwich we used a little of broth from meat. Put on a bun with either mustard, pickle, diced fresh onions and ketchup if asked for and slightly salted, put top half on bun and wrapped in a maid rite paper. So now days, they aren’t the original of 40s and 50s.


Tuesday 23rd of August 2022

@Norma Heat, Exciting times, 'eh Norma?

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