They're like hamburgers, except they're more like a Sloppy Joe, except that they're totally different. Who's hungry?
Let's say you are among the vast majority of Americans—the first and last place you probably heard anyone talking about the loose meat sandwich was that season on the smash-hit sitcom Roseanne (premiering—once again!—tonight, on ABC), when Roseanne, Jackie and crew opened up a small restaurant in their Illinois town, calling it the Lanford Lunch Box.
Their specialty? These simple sandwiches—crumbled, cooked ground beef, onion, and little else besides salt and pepper, scooped up and piled high on a hamburger bun. It tastes like a hamburger, but without most of the trimmings; unlike your typical hamburger, however, there is a great deal of skill involved in keeping the whole thing together, on the way to your mouth.
Does the loose meat sandwich sound like something made up for laughs? Don't tell that to your friends from Iowa, or at least from the parts of Iowa where this un-ironically deconstructed creation has been a part of life since the 1920's, when—as local lore has it—a Sioux City tavern owner invented something like it, calling it a tavern sandwich. Along with the pork tenderloin, Steak de Burgo, and giant slices of sour cream and raisin pie, the loose meat sandwich is so important to the culinary identity in certain parts of the state, one veteran Sioux City food writer once suggested the humble sandwich deserved its own museum.
Then again, it kind of has one, already—besides a fairly broad selection of road trip-worthy mom-and-pops still dotting the state, Iowa is also home to Maid-Rite, a fast food restaurant chain dating back almost as far as the first tavern sandwich, founded in 1926 in Muscatine by butcher Fred Angell. You can get a pork tenderloin sandwich here, or cheese curds, malts, even salads, but the star of the menu? That sandwich. Here, they call it a Maid-Rite, and while there are considerably fewer Maid-Rites dotting the state these days, many Iowans grew up eating these sandwiches, simply referring to them as Maid-Rites.
To the outsider, the tavern, the loose meat, the Maid-Rite, or whatever you call it (it has other names, read on) may appear to be something like an unfinished symphony, but the love for loose meat appears to be almost instilled from birth in this part of the country; ask a local in the town of Ottumwa for their favorite restaurant, and they might point you toward the rectangular cinder block hut tucked below a parking garage—that would be Canteen Lunch, with less than 20 seats around a horseshoe counter, in business since (once again!) the 1920's, and in this location almost as long. (The parking garage came much later, and so loved is the Canteen Lunch around here, they ended up building around it, rather than knocking it down.)
In here, if you want a sandwich, you order a Canteen, with or without cheese; it's said that this simple spot was the inspiration for TV's Lanford Lunchbox, which isn't all that surprising—Ottumwa, turns out, is the hometown of none other than Tom Arnold.
Where to Eat Loose Meat
In a rather memorable case of life imitating art, after doing it the other way around first, Tom and Roseanne actually had their own, very real, loose meat sandwich joint in the small town of Eldon, Iowa, back in the early-to-mid 1990's. They called it Roseanne & Tom's Big Food Diner, and they opened it just down the road from their 1,700-acre spread, where their dream mansion was constructed, but never completed. The diner was a hit for a time, eventually vanishing from the landscape. No fear, however, because Iowa retains an abundance of classic spots where the curious can try their hand at eating one of the state's most iconic meals, once described by Roseanne The Character as "a sloppy Joe, but without the slop."
Canteen Lunch in the Alley Ottumwa
For Roseanne fans, this is the one—it also happens to be the home of one of the best loose meat sandwiches in the state, here (just a reminder!) called a Canteen. You get it with or without cheese; either way, both come with pickle, ketchup, mustard and onions. Don't sleep on the pie, or the chocolate malts. Are you the competitive type? Their annual Canteen Eating Contest, held in June, is a highlight of the Ottumwa social season. Hurry, though—entries must be in by this weekend.
Miles Inn Sioux City
Northwest Iowa is where this whole business started, and all these years later, Siouxland locals are still super proud of their tavern sandwiches. A couple of places will inevitably come up in conversation, but you can't do much better than this classic bar, where they are known as (because of course they are) Charlie Boys. Here, the simplicity is deceptive—rumor has it that the original, closely guarded recipe for the beef filling contains so many different seasonings, it's almost impossible to faithfully reproduce.
If you find yourself road-tripping through Iowa, this home-grown fast food restaurant chain makes for a perfectly fine introduction to the sandwich—ask the many Iowans who grew up eating Maid-Rites, and only Maid-Rites. We're hugely partial to the Blue-Rite, if you see it on the menu—this is a happy marriage of two supremely Iowa things: crumbly, creamy blue cheese, and piles of beef. Funky and delicious.