The Iowa Beef Industry Council had their 4th annual "Best Burger in Iowa" contest this year and the winner was a steak house/supper club about an hour drive from Davenport, 61 Chophouse in the small town of Mediapolis. I'd been wanting to get down there to try one of their burgers and I asked my wife if she wanted to take a day trip and head down there with me. She was up for it and we took off down Highway 61 toward Mediapolis.
Terry Reis and his wife, Lori Denney, are the owners of 61 Chophouse. They purchased the old Turn 2 sports bar location in Mediapolis in the summer of 2009 and took about three months to transform it into a steak house/supper club. Reis, a native of Minnesota, is a certified executive chef through the American Culinary Federation. Previously, he was a culinary arts instructor at a school in the Twin Cities, as well as a chef in various restaurants over the years. Before getting into the 61 Chophouse, he was the manager of the Drake Restaurant along the riverfront in downtown Burlington, IA.
Lori Denney has years of experience in the hospitality industry working as a sales and catering manager for a number of upscale hotel chains. A native of Southeast Iowa, wanted to move back to her home area after working as the director of sales and catering at a Radisson Hotel in the Twin Cities area. After a stint as a hotel and restaurant manager in Burlington, she joined her husband in their 61 Chophouse endeavor and is in charge of catering events at the restaurants banquet room. The two also own the Yarmouth Cafe in nearby Yarmouth, IA
Terry Reis is also a renown master ice carver. He is certified as a Professional Master Ice Carver and a competition ice carver. His ice carvings have been used in movies and featured in national magazines. To see a variety of ice sculptures Reis has made over the years, click here.
It was around 12:30 when we pulled into the parking lot of 61 Chophouse located along Highway 61 in Medapolis. (see map) Actually, I didn't really know what to expect. It had been about three months since 61 Chophouse had been given the "Best Burger" award and I had wanted to wait to let the hoopla subside before I tried one. I didn't know if the place would be packed or not. Turns out that it wasn't. There was a small little crowd in there for the lunchtime, but it was only about a quarter full.
We were greeted by a young lady at the hostess stand who asked us if we wanted a table or a booth. I sort of looked up at the step up lounge area at 61 Chophouse - called the Liquid Lounge - and it looked pretty nice. She noticed that I was looking up at the lounge area and she asked if we wanted to eat in the lounge. I said, "No, no, no. That's OK. I was just checking out the bar area." It was a very nice bar, to say the least.
She directed us to a booth along the north wall of the restaurant and dropped off a couple menus for us to look over. A few moments later, our server, another young girl by the name of Taylor, came over to greet us and get our drink orders. I ordered a Bud Light and Cindy ordered an iced tea. Taylor brought the bottle of beer back and it was ice cold.
In 2011, the local Cattlemen's Association let Reis know that there was a "Best Burger" contest for the state of Iowa. He entered his "Barn Burger" - an 8 oz. black angus beef patty topped with Swiss and American cheeses, then topped with 61 Chophouse's "secret" Barn sauce, then topped with a pile of home-made onion straws, all served on an egg bun. It got Reis a top 10 finisher for the 2011 Best Burger contest.
The next year, Reis entered his "Triple B" burger that featured blue cheese, bacon and a "bella" portabella mushroom. When the burger didn't finish in the top 10 in 2012, Reis worked with some of the members of the local Cattlemen's Association to come up with a burger for the 2013 contest. Applewood smoked bacon was one of the suggestions from the cattlemen, and Reis came up with a beer cheese sauce made from the new Budweiser Black Crown beer that came out earlier this year. To add a little pop to the taste, Reis added some pepperjack cheese. He put it on an egg bun and called it the Angus Black Crown Burger. It made the finals once again and was named the best burger in Iowa in May of this year.
(Pictured left - the Angus Black Crown Burger as shown on 61 Chophouse's website. Be sure to check back with this picture later on.)
Actually, the Barn Burger sounded pretty good. I proposed that we get one of each - the Angus Black Crown Burger and the Barn Burger - then we could try both of them. When Taylor came back, we did just that. We got fries with one and cole slaw with the other. She said, "We cook them medium, is that all right?" We told her that it would be perfect.
Good burgers take time, so it was close to 20 minutes from the time we ordered the burgers before Taylor brought them back to us. Below is the Black Angus Burger that was served to me. I could just tell from the look of the outside of the patty that the burger was overcooked. Medium, to me, is cooked with a hint of pink in the middle. After cutting the burger in half to share with my wife, I saw there was no pink in the middle and the outside shell of the patty was hard. It was definitely cooked medium-well to well.
The other thing that sort of popped out at me was the lack - if any - of the beer cheese sauce on the Angus Black Crown burger. It appeared that there was some sort of cheese on the burger - I couldn't tell if it was just the beer cheese sauce or the pepperjack cheese (I'm guessing the latter) on the burger. But it wasn't swimming in cheese as the picture above from 61 Chophouse's website.
The first taste of the Angus Black Crown Burger confirmed our fears - it was overcooked. There was no juicyness to the taste, the outer shell of the burger patty tasted slightly burned and there was a definite lack of cheese in the overall taste. The bun, however, was very good. Spongy and flavorful, it was the only thing that saved the burger from being a complete disappointment.
The Barn Burger didn't fare much better. First of all, they claim they put a "haystack" of onion straws on the burger. It looked like the haystack had been blown away somewhere between the kitchen and our table. The burger patty, too, was overcooked and somewhat lifeless. I could get a cheesy taste with the bites of burgers that I had - much more so than the Angus Black Crown Burger. The bun was once again the star of the burger, the only saving grace from calling the burger as completely overrated was the bun.
Now, I think of myself as somewhat of a burger expert. God knows that I've eaten enough of them over the years that I've been doing Road Tips. But if the Angus Black Crown Burger was deemed the best burger in Iowa, I have to severely question the credentials of the judges. Cindy even thought they weren't that good. "Not worth the trip," was her comment to me. To me, if wasn't any better than an average sports bar burger.
Cindy and I figured out that it probably wasn't Terry Reis back in the kitchen cooking for the noon time crowd. But my point here is - if they have the best burger in Iowa, shouldn't it CONSISTENTLY be the best burger in Iowa? I know places that are wholly dependent upon the head cook or chef or the food suffers. I have to put 61 Chophouse in that category, as well.
Since our visit, we met a person from Mediapolis and we told her that we'd recently been to Chophouse 61 for the burger. She hesitated and asked, "Sooo... What did you think?" When we told her we thought it was overrated, she concurred. "Terry's a nice guy and all," she said. "But there were a lot of people around town who were surprised he won the best burger contest. Don't get me wrong, it's great for the community. But we're trying to figure out how he was able to pull off having the best burger."
When the judges for the best burger contest came to 61 Chophouse for the Angus Black Crown Burger, it's my guess that the person who made our burger was not the same person who made it for the judges. As I said, if you're going to have the best burger in Iowa and people are going to come from all over - even further away than an hour's drive for the burger - it had better be the same as the winning burger each and every time it comes out of the kitchen. I don't see myself just making a drive back down to Mediapolis some evening just to have Terry Reis cook me a burger. But if you want to give it a try, do it after 5 p.m. when there's a better chance for Reis to make one for you.
(Update - Terry Reis accepted a position as a corporate chef for Palace Entertainment in Los Angeles. He and his wife, Lori Denney, closed 61 Chophouse on March 29, 2014.)