The nominations for the 2012 Iowa Beef Industry Council Best Burger in Iowa contest have come in and a number of burger places across the state are vying to succeed the Rusty Duck in Dexter, IA as this year's winner. Rusty Duck's Ultimate Cheeseburger, a 14 oz. ground steakburger, topped with three different kinds of cheese, sweet red peppers, sauteed mushrooms and onions, beat out 275 other nominees for the best burger in Iowa for 2011. It has been my goal to try Rusty Duck's burger at some point, but on my first two visits to the place I was shut out. The first time, I came too early (they open at 5 p.m.) and the second time, I came on the wrong day (they are closed on Sunday and Monday). This particular visit, I made double damn sure that they'd be open, even calling beforehand just to make sure.
The Rusty Duck has been in business for nearly 8 years and is primarily known as a steakhouse. Owner Brad Waldron cuts his own steaks and uses the trimmings from both sirloin and strip steaks for his burgers. He grinds them himself and the more steaks he sells in his restaurant, the more hamburgers he can make up. There were times right after the Rusty Duck won the Best Burger award that they'd run out of burgers. He only had enough meat for so many burgers. Over a typical Friday and Saturday night period, the Rusty Duck sells over 200 burgers. In addition to the 14 oz. monster burgers, the Rusty Duck also has an 8 oz. burger on their menu.
Waldron (pictured at right), who started out his restaurant career about 25 years ago as a busboy at Gino's Italian Restaurant in Des Moines, knows his way around the kitchen. He is the grill chef at the Rusty Duck with over 80% of the items sold on their menu coming from beef. In addition to steaks and burgers, the Rusty Duck also features pork chops and chicken. In fact, their breaded tenderloin sandwich got 4th place in the Iowa Pork Producers Best Pork Tenderloin sandwich award in 2011. That's not too bad - winning the best burger and getting a top 5 finish in the best pork tenderloin.
The Rusty Duck is located in the heart of the small downtown area of Dexter (see map). Angled parking on both sides of the street is plentiful, that is if the American Legion across and down the street doesn't have a big crowd. I pulled in around 6:30 one evening and went inside. The decor of the restaurant isn't much to talk about. The dropped ceiling tiles are a little dingy and dirty, the chairs and tables are very basic. There's a large bar area that seats about 20 to 24 people with a mirrored backwall and a television in the center.
A hostess greeted me and asked if I wanted to sit at the bar. There were a number of people at the bar and I decided to sit at a table. She tried to seat me at a high table, but I asked to sit at a regular table. She sort of acted a little miffed that I wanted to sit at a table, then when I asked to sit at a regular table she sort of gruffly tossed the menu down on a table in front of the fireplace. I thought, "OK, yeah, whatever..."
However, the waitress that came over to greet me was very nice. "Welcome to the Rusty Duck," she enthusiastically said. "What can I get you to drink?"
I took a quick look at what turned out to be a very extensive menu for a small place. Of course, there were steaks, chops, chicken and some seafood items on the menu in addition to sandwiches and some salads. I was there for the burger and right at the top was the Ultimate Cheeseburger. However, I saw that it had sauteed peppers. I can't handle cooked green peppers very well. I like the taste of them, but I get indigestion something fierce afterward.
I did see that they had a bacon cheeseburger on the menu and I thought I could get one of those and maybe see if they could stick some mushrooms on the burger. When the waitress came over to take my order, I asked her if I could get a burger like that. She said, "Did you see our Ultimate Cheeseburger? It has everything on it that you're looking for." When I told her that I couldn't handle sauteed peppers very well, she perked up and said, "Oh! They're the red sweet peppers!"
Well, I CAN handle sauteed sweet red peppers, so I did end up going with the Ultimate Cheeseburger. She asked me how I wanted it cooked and she warned me that Waldron tends to cook his beef a little to the rare side. I ordered mine medium. She then said that because the burger is pretty thick, it takes awhile to cook. I was fine with that. I had my choice of French fries or their homemade steak fries. She said, "Our steak fries are actually cut long and thin, not the big thick steak fries that you get at other places." I got those, although I knew I wouldn't be eating many of them.
About 20 minutes later, I heard a bell ring at the service window and I just happened to look up to see the monstrous burger sitting there. My waitress went over to pick it up and, sure enough, she brought it to my table. Wow! This thing was HUGE!!! There was a ton of cheese on top of the burger, followed by strips of sauteed red peppers, large fresh sauteed mushrooms, sauteed onions, and crisp bacon. The bun was lightly toasted, light and moist.
In order to even handle this behemoth burger, I had to cut it in two. The beef was excellent - very fresh and flavorful. Actually, it was a little overcooked to my taste and I thought that if Brad Waldron tended to cook his meats a little to the rare side, I'm glad that I didn't order it medium-well. But it was still juicy enough.
Because of all the toppings on the burger - especially the cheese oozing off the top with every bite - eating the burger was a messy experience. I'm not certain any of the bacon, peppers or mushrooms actually stayed on the burger because they were constantly slipping off with each bite. I was constantly stopping and picking up the dropped toppings and putting them back on the burger. And with all that mess, I was using my cloth napkin constantly. Actually, between constantly wiping my hands and my mouth area, what I needed was a big roll of paper towels. The cloth napkin was a nice touch, but my hands never felt clean even after wiping them off. I had to go to the restroom and wash my hands after I finished the meal.
I ate half the burger with no problem and I cut the other half into another half. I barely finished that smaller quarter of the burger before I decided I'd had enough. I had a couple of the thin steak fries and they were good, but I couldn't eat any more. I saw an article on the wall of the restaurant that had to be written before they won the Best Burger award last year that said a number of guys had tried to eat the Ultimate Cheeseburger in one sitting, but hadn't been able to do so. I'm guessing that isn't the case now that the secret of the Rusty Duck is now out. I probably could have finished the whole thing had I not had lunch earlier in the day. But it was beginning to sit like a gut bomb in my stomach. Oh boy. I have to say that I was full for at least two days afterward. I didn't have breakfast or lunch the next day and I didn't care.
The overall taste of the burger was.... Good. I can't really say that the Ultimate Cheeseburger at the Rusty Duck was the best I'd had - I'm not even certain that it's the best burger I've ever had in Iowa. But it would definitely be a Top Ten all-time of Iowa burgers if I did such a list. I wish he would have taken it off a couple three minutes earlier, but the overall taste of the beef was well above average. The criteria for Best Burger in Iowa not only encompasses the taste of the burger, but how it is presented, the unique nature of the burger, and how well the bun works with the burger. I'd give the burger an A on uniqueness, an A in presentation, an A- with the bun and a B for overall taste. With all the cheese and toppings, there was a lot going on and I'm not certain that I really got a good taste of the beef. Maybe I'll go back at some point and get a smaller burger without all the fixin's.