(Update - The Iowa Pork Producers Association has awarded Breitbach's with the coveted "Best Pork Loin Sandwich in Iowa" for 2012. Here's Road Tips take on the pork loin sandwich from the summer of 2010.)
Breitbach's Country Dining is located in little Balltown, IA which is situated high on a bluff overlooking the Mississippi River in Northeast Iowa (see map). (Above - the panaramic view of the Mississippi River valley from behind Breitbach's.) Breitbach's has been a family owned restaurant/tavern since back in the 1860's, but it's history goes back to 1852 when it began as a stage coach stop. Recently, Breitbach's has suffered from two devastating fires - one in December of 2007 and another one in October of 2008. But they've rebuilt both times and continue to serve country style meals for breakfast, lunch and dinner.
Cindy turned me on to Breitbach's a number of years ago when we were out on a weekend drive in NE Iowa, going around to see some of the places her family was from and places she used to visit as a little girl. That one and only visit, I forget what I had for dinner, but Cindy had grilled shrimp. The only problem was that there were these little metal flakes on the shrimp. When we brought it to the attention of the waitress, she quickly took the shrimp away. It wasn't long before more grilled shrimp - a LOT more grilled shrimp - came to the table. And stopping by to apologize was Mike Breitbach, the owner of the place. He comped Cindy's meal that evening with a promise that we'd make it back at some point. We always had planned on going back, but just never got around to do it. However, I had to drive up to La Crosse earlier this summer and I had a chance to stop in to Breitbach's for lunch.
Mike Breitbach (right) is the fifth-generation owner of Breitbach's. His great-great grandfather, Jacob Breitbach, worked at the stage coach stop that served food and beer to weary travelers heading up the Mississippi River to Minneapolis. In 1862, the elder Breitbach bought the establishment from the previous owner and it's been in the Breitbach family ever since. Breitbach's Country Dining is said to be the oldest continuous restaurant/tavern in the state of Iowa. And with Mike's kids and - I was told - grandkids working in the restaurant, there would be now eight generations of Breitbach's who have helped out in the place.
On Christmas Eve of 2007, a fire engulfed Breitbach's restaurant. (For that story, click here.) Mike Breitbach and his wife, Cindy, decided almost immediately to rebuild the restaurant. With the help of local contractors and volunteers, they rebuilt the place from the ground up. They redecorated with vintage antiques and large dining rooms with wood-beamed ceilings. The Breitbach's would have loved to have installed a water-sprinkler system throughout the restaurant, but Balltown doesn't have a city water system - the residents get their water from wells. Installing a pressurized sprinkler system in the restaurant would have been too expensive.
So, guess what? Breitbach's Country Dining went through ANOTHER devastating fire in October of 2008, less than five months after they'd reopened and exactly 10 months to the day after the first fire. (For that story, click here.) While a gas leak was found to be the cause for the first fire in December, authorities weren't sure what caused the second fire. A number of framed newspaper pages and articles on both fires adorn the wall of a hallway between Breitbach's bar area and one of their dining rooms.
After a second fire, Mike Breitbach wasn't too certain that he wanted to rebuild. He was still waiting to get the final verdict from his insurance company who was doing a thorough investigation of the first fire. The second fire was investigated by up to 50 insurance inspectors who combed through the rubble for any sign of what may have started the fire. I've since heard that the second fire may have been started by faulty electrical wiring, but that wasn't the definitive ruling of the probe. In any event, arson was ruled out.
The Breitbach's eventually decided to rebuild, buoyed by the support of longtime customers and friends in the area. Breitbach's new restaurant opened in the Spring of 2009. It features a large bar area and three large dining rooms. The main dining room also features a buffet area for lunch through the week, a full buffet on Friday and Saturday nights, and a breakfast buffet on Sunday mornings followed by a brunch buffet on Sunday starting at 11.
Balltown is so small that it basically has one main road through town. It's on this main road that Breitbach's sits next to. They have a large parking lot in back, although a large semi and a bus were parking in the lots making it difficult to maneuver around them. I went in and was greeting by a young hostess who showed me to a table.
I sat in one of the dining rooms toward the back of the place. A smaller dining room off to the side was host to a group of motorcyclists who had driven their U.S. flag-adorned bikes to Breitbach's for lunch. I was given a lunch menu and while I thought about going through the buffet, I ended up thinking about just getting a sandwich for my lunch. While they don't really have deli sandwiches, per se, Breitbach's serves up basic fried or grilled items burgers, chicken sandwiches, BLT's, tuna melts and tenderloin sandwiches. I'm guessing the buffet is the go-to item on the menu during the lunch hours and that's why they don't go much further than the basics on their menu.
I thought the fried pork tenderloin sounded good. The waitress told me they use the same batter on their tenderloins as they put on their fried chicken. I prefer a battered pork tenderloin than a breaded one. I will say that I looked at the fried chicken on the buffet and thought it looked pretty good. I ended up getting the fried pork tenderloin with onion rings.
And I'm glad I did. The tenderloin was very, very good. A top notch sandwich, indeed. The batter was light and they didn't pound the tenderloin beforehand to squash it out into an uneatable size. The bun was lightly toasted and wasn't dried out in the least. The onion rings were *OK* - nothing special. I'm sure they were of the frozen variety that Breitbach's buy from a food purveyor.
After lunch, I walked around the inside of Breitbach's to take a closer look at things. Mike Breitbach had been running around the place, helping bus tables, pointing things out to the wait staff, and talking with what appeared to be long-time customers of his restaurant. I wanted to ask Mike if there were any changes he did to the restaurant between the first and second fire. You know, you put up a new building and about four months later you're thinking, "Well, if I had to do it over again, I would have done it this way." I didn't know if it would be tacky to ask him such a question. And he sort of disappeared into the kitchen, so I never did get the chance to ask him. And thinking back, it's probably for the better.
Outside Breitbach's, they have a large beer garden behind the restaurant. It actually looked rather nice with heavy walnut oil-stained tables and benches, a heavy roof over the top and a number of hanging baskets through out the garden. There was a garden area just to the east of that with a number of ornamental plants and flowers. It looked like a great place to hang out on a warm Friday afternoon during an Iowa summer.
You can tell that it's a labor of love for Mike Breitbach and his restaurant. When we first met him years ago when we had a problem with Cindy's meal, you could tell he was a genuinely nice guy who cared about his customers first and foremost. Joking with his customers during my visit tells me that even getting hit in the stomach twice in less than a year he's been able to pull through and carry on a tradition that began in the mid-1800's. While their food overall is average to above home-style cooking, I felt the pork tenderloin sandwich was one of the best I've had. It's tough to beat Breitbach's for a small slice of Americana high above the bluffs along the Mississippi River in NE Iowa.