Turns out, Iowa is home to a few homegrown food chains, some of which span across the country.
From mouth-watering burgers and pizzas to fast-casual burritos, Iowa restaurateurs have done their part to feed the masses and it’s time we celebrate them!
Here are the stories of five Iowa-based restaurant chains—and one honorary Iowa chain—and my go-to order at each:
Although the first B-Bop’s opened in 1988, each location in the Des Moines metro models itself after a classic 1950s diner. These restaurants are filled with neon lights, black and white checked floors and were originally a special type of drive-thru. According to a Des Moines Register interview with owner Robert Johnson, he wanted to open a double drive-thru and he did. This unique business plan still makes B-Bop’s the only place in town using this method.
What I Get: 1/4 lb. Hamburger
If I am choosing a fast-food place and B-Bop’s is nearby, I’ll happily drive by the national chains and put my pedal to the metal for their burgers. Am I desperate enough to pay extra for cheese? No way. The classic1/4 lb. hamburger has the right mixture of ketchup, mustard, and mayonnaise that provides a delectable sauce that goes down easy with the cooked-to-order patties. While it feels slightly more expensive than other fast-food restaurants, it is an overall better burger.
If you attended the University of Northern Iowa in Cedar Falls, you know what’s up with The Other Place (The OP). Founded in 1970 on College Hill by Sue Stedman and her late husband, Ken, The OP was a college bar that served and delivered pizza, which was apparently a novel concept then.
Over the last 50 years, as Panthers spread out across the Midwest, The OP has opened restaurants throughout Iowa and on the Kansas side of the Kansas City metro. While the OP built its name on its pizza, it has a lot of other options ranging from salads to sandwiches to wraps to pasta to burgers to subs.
What I Get: The Longhorn
This half-pound burger topped with Texas-style barbecue sauce, bacon, cheddar, and lettuce satisfies every need. I also forgot to mention it is topped with hand-breaded onion rings. This delicious barbecue burger has sweet sauce and savory meat but the crunch of the onion rings takes it to the next level. It is best to eat half the burger and save the rest for later to be healthy, but that will not happen. This tasty burger is too hard to put down and wait for the next day.
Whether you are a Republican politician or a glutton ready for Iowa’s greatest buffet, Pizza Ranch has an endless supply of food. After noticing folks driving to a nearby town to a pizza parlor he worked at, Adrie Groeneweg decided to hang up his part-time welding skills to start his own pizza business in the tiny northwest Iowa town of Hull in 1981. With some help from his dad, this now Orange City-based business has more than 200 locations throughout the country. Whether you are a fan of the chicken and pizza or just the chicken or pizza, everyone finds a favorite at this buffet.
What I Get: Chocolate Pudding
Call me crazy for not craving chicken or pizza, but any buffet I step foot into, I find the chocolate pudding. Typically placed at the salad bar, this cold, thick delight hits the spot every time. Floppy around in weird and questionable ways and made of who knows what, it is worth it. It might mix with my salad due to my need to eat nutritious food before I devour ten different slices of pizza and Cactus Bread, but it always tastes good!
I had no idea Pancheros was headquartered in Coralville. Pancheros was started in 1992 in Iowa City by Rodney Anderson at the ripe old age of 24. It was my first fast-casual Tex-Mex restaurant experience and it still holds a special place in my heart. With more than 69 restaurants in 12 states, Pancheros and its fresh-pressed tortillas will always be better than Chipotle Mexican Grill.
What I Get: A chicken burrito with black beans, pico de gallo, jalapenos, lettuce, mild ancho salsa, salsa verde, and cheese
This appetizing combination makes the perfect burrito. I cannot fathom paying for queso or guacamole due to my cheapness, but the chicken is always well cooked and the jalapenos add a nice kick. The two-salsa union is different, but trust me, it works. When you are a Midwestern, white man with no spice tolerance, this is how I kick it up a notch. Also, eating this burrito feels healthy.
Maid-Rite is home of the loose-meat sandwich and is the oldest business on the list. This West Des Moines-based chain is a relic of yesteryears. Founded in 1926 by butcher Fred Angell, the restaurant’s name came about after a deliveryman tried one of the sandwiches and commented “This sandwich is made right,” according to the Maid-Rite company lore.
There are 20 Maid-Rite locations in Iowa and others in Illinois, Missouri, Minnesota, and Ohio. I remember the time I spent at this restaurant with my grandparents and each bite offers a taste of nostalgia.
What I Get: The Original Maid-Rite
Served in two wrappers makes sense. This sandwich had a lot of mess and a lot of grease, but the aroma of the Maid-Rite is exemplary. It reminded me of how a Maid-Rite is never overly impressive, but it never disappoints. Covered in ketchup, mustard, pickles, and onions— a little heavy on the onions—it tasted good! The pickles were pickles; however, it lacked enough ketchup and mustard, although I’m also not an over-user of condiments. Due to its cheapness and a hearty amount of meat, the Maid-Rite met the criteria for a good sandwich. After all these years, it still tasted like I remembered ad I applaud its consistency. They also gave me a spoon to eat my sandwich which surprised me. But when I finished eating the sandwich and there was still a third of the meat lying on the greasy wrapper it made sense.
BONUS: Taco John’s
While Taco John’s (TJ’s) technically isn’t an Iowa chain, it may as well be! It started in 1969 as a small taco stand in Cheyenne, Wyoming, operated by a man named John Turner. This fast-food restaurant has exploded across the Midwest, but especially in Iowa.
With 44 Iowa locations, the Hawkeye State has the second largest number of Taco John’s in the country. The company’s home state of Wyoming only has 19! The only state touching Iowa is Minnesota with 54, but it is clear that Iowans love Taco John’s more! TJ’s might as well leave the ruggedness of Wyoming for the beautiful corn and bean fields of Iowa.
What I Get: Potato Olés
I am not a fan of fast-food Mexican food offered by the likes of Taco John’s and Taco Bell. Pancheros, Qdoba, or Chipotle are much better options. They serve real burritos, but Taco John’s potato olés are the best part of any visit. Everyone should try them. They are snackable, crisp, and crunchy. They are a better side alternative than fries.
by Sean Dengler
Iowa Starting Line is part of an independent news network and focuses on how state and national decisions impact Iowans’ daily lives. We rely on your financial support to keep our stories free for all to read. You can contribute to us here. Also follow us on Facebook and Twitter.