Hungry in the Hawkeye State: What to Eat in Iowa

You really out to give Iowa’s food a try.

Photo By: DarcyMaulsby

Photo By: Erich B. Ernst

Eat Well in Iowa

With seemingly countless rows of corn and wheat, more cattle than people and the most pork in the country, Iowa has a long and rich tradition of excellent food. Opt for farm-fresh classics or creative local concoctions to experience the best of the local culinary scene.

By Nick Lucs

Breaded Pork Tenderloin

Iowa produces the most pork in the country. According to the Iowa Pork Producers, there are around 20 million pigs in Iowa at any given time. Breaded pork tenderloins are a staple to Iowans, especially during the Iowa State Fair when fried slabs of meat are about the size of your face and stand zero chance of fitting into a bun. For those in search of fried pork when the Iowa State Fair isn’t happening, head for The Lucky Pig in Ogden, or Nick’s, in Des Moines.

The Original Maid-Rite Sandwich

A messy culinary rite of passage, the Maid-Rite sandwich is Iowa tradition, made with just the right combination of spices and meat. First created in 1926 by Fred Angell, the sandwich was declared to be “made right" by a happy customer, and the name, Maid-Rite, was history. Since then, this ground meat sandwich — topped with mustard, ketchup, onion and pickles — has become an edible icon, available at locations throughout the state.

Nutty Bars

Sure, ice cream cones have their time and place, but those visiting Okoboji, one of the state’s top lake destinations, should opt for a Nutty Bar instead. The Nutty Bar Stand has been a summer tradition since 1945, serving Iowa’s beloved Blue Bunny vanilla ice cream on a stick, dipped in chocolate and covered with nuts. They also make homemade root beer, root beer floats and other summertime favorites, including ice cream cones.

Burgers

According to the Iowa Beef Council, cattle outnumber people in the Hawkeye State. Iowans take pride in the state’s richly flavored meat, including with some exceptional. Of the many places to try a burger in Iowa, the best may be The Cider House in Fairfield. Serving beef that’s pasture-grazed and grain-finished from Adrian Family Farms, the restaurant makes several variations on a classic burger, including one with Applewood bacon and American cheese on a sesame bun.

Gas Station Pizza

Gas stations may not leap to mind as the first place for primo pies, but Casey’s, across Iowa, serves pizzas good enough to be many Iowans’ go-to. There are basic cheese pies, as well as a taco pizza covered with chips, salsa, ground beef and beans. The breakfast pizza piles scrambled eggs, mozzarella and cheddar with your choice of breakfast meat onto a doughy base, for those getting an early start.

Iowa Sweet Corn

If drive more than a few blocks in Iowa, you’ll likely see a few sprouting ears of corn growing. In fact, the saying is, “knee-high by the fourth of July.” Come mid-summer, farmers pack truck beds full of sweet corn to sell at markets and on street corners. There are even festivals dedicated to the kernels. One favorite hybrid is the bi-color peaches and cream, known for its exceptionally sweet flavor, and sold by Grimes Sweet Corn.

Blue Bunny Ice Cream

Blue Bunny has churned ice cream since 1935, becoming one of the most-beloved scoop stops in the world. In fact, they produce so much ice cream, that Le Mars, Iowa, is known as the ice cream capital of the world. Pints are sold in shops around the country, but the Blue Bunny Ice Cream parlor features 40 flavors of ice cream, including a few that are exclusive to the shop, along with malts, sodas, floats and the massive Avalanche.

Hot Beef Sandwich

Iowans have plenty of creative ways to prepare beef, including nearly ubiquitous well-spiced pot roasts in winter. Locals love to roast extra-large cuts to ensure enough meat for leftover hot beef sandwiches. The comfort-packed combination piles beef, gravy and sometimes mashed potatoes onto white bread. Make it at home or head to Crouse Café in Indianola.

Toppling Goliath Brews

Although most fields in Iowa are dedicated to corn and soybeans, Iowans love their wheat and barley, the prime ingredients in great local beer. Iowa is now home to 75 craft breweries and counting, up from about 25 since 2009. Though several have developed cult followings, no brewery has garnered more acclaim than Toppling Goliath in Decorah. Devoted fans from across the country have been known wait hours in line for rare bottle releases. Slide into the taproom, open seven days a week, to sample favorites like PseudoSue Pale Ale and Dorothy’s New World Lager.

Anderson Erickson Dairy Products

Whether they’re planning a backyard barbecue, a football tailgate or any social gathering involving food, Iowans will likely have a container or two of Anderson Erickson Dairy’s Party Dip on hand. The dairy uses sour cream, with seasons like Bacon-French Onion, Mexican spices and the classic Party dip, all ideal for chips and vegetable slices.

Panino

Open since 1922, Leo’s in tiny Oelwein has lured fans of Italian food for nearly a century. In recent years, many have come exclusively for the Panino. The simple baked sandwich developed such a following that the owners once tried to patent its process. The Panino features Italian bread stuffed with Italian sausage, pepperoni, marinara sauce, all baked to seal it.

Steak de Burgo

Beef abounds in Iowa, and if you’re in the Des Moines area, the most-iconic way to prepare it is Steak de Burgo, an inherently local preparation. Steak de Burgo features beef tenderloin topped with butter, garlic and Italian herbs. Some restaurants stick with time-tested family recipes: At Sam and Gabe’s Restaurant, spices go on right away and the steak is cooked in butter, just the way family members created it. The Latin King cooks the iconic dish is a skillet and then finishes it off on a grill and adds the butter and seasoning right before the dish hits the guest’s table.