In 2012, the Iowa Beef Industry Council awarded a bowling alley - of all places - the third annual "Best Burger in Iowa" award. This bowling alley is in the small West Central Iowa town of Coon Rapids. I don't get out that way all that much anymore, but on a recent visit to Northwest Iowa, I took the backroads down to see an old dealer in Carroll, IA just to say, "Hey!" But the ulterior motive was to go to the Coon Bowl III in Coon Rapids to try one of their burgers.
The Coon Bowl III has been around Coon Rapids for about 70 years. For the last 20 years, the bowling alley has been owned by locals Dave Halbur, Aaron Kenyon, Mike Deeth and nearby Bayard native Darwin Halterman. They are the third owners of the bowling alley, hence the "III" in the name of the place. The building used to be a farm implement dealership until the 1940's when the building was purchased and an 8-lane bowling alley was put in. The owners entrust Cindy Heydon and Dan George to run the day-to-day operations of the bowling alley and grill.
Before I made it to Coon Rapids, however, I had to make a pilgrimage to Templeton, IA - home of the somewhat famous Templeton Rye "prohibition-style" whiskey. I've been wanting to get out to Templeton to visit the Templeton Rye distillery for quite sometime.
When I pulled into Templeton, I wasn't exactly sure where the place was. But as I came toward a curve that would take me into the center of the small town, I saw a rather interesting sight - a small mountain of oak aging barrels. Yep, I found Templeton Rye.
It was after 5 p.m. and I was certain that the place wasn't open. They do tours twice a day through the week and once on Saturday's. Actually, due to the growing popularity of Templeton Rye, most of the distilling of product is done in Lawrenceburg, IN, then shipped via tanker truck back to Templeton for bottling. I'm not certain if they still do the 250 gallon small-batch distilling in Templeton.
Coming into Coon Rapids, I wasn't certain where the Coon Bowl III was located. Fortunately, my GPS has a feature that lists recreation places in given areas. Sure enough, the Coon Bowl III was on there. And the GPS took me right to the corner S. 5th St. and Walnut. (see map)
When you walk into the Coon Bowl, you walk into what appears to be the locker area with the restrooms. A quick left and you're in the bowling alley.
I've been in a few small town bowling alleys across Iowa and the Coon Bowl III is similar to many of them. It had a small bar and about 8 tables in front of the lanes. Three of the tables close to the lanes were reserved for bowlers only. This, my friends, is truly small town Americana.
I took a seat at the bar and a lady came over to greet me. I told her that I wanted one of their award-winning cheeseburgers. She asked, "Do you want any fries with that?" Now, when I was walking from my car to the front door the smell of the French fries was almost intoxicating. And I subscribe to the Tony Kornheiser-held notion that the best fries in the world are the ones sold at bowling alleys. Of course, I had to get the fries.
There's other things on the menu which is located on the wall behind the counter. They do burgers five different ways - regular, cheese, veggie (with lettuce and tomato), a pizza burger and a bacon cheeseburger. (The cheeseburger is what won the "Best Burger in Iowa" contest in 2012.) They also have pork tenderloins, chicken breast sandwiches, and a fried fish sandwich. I read somewhere that cook Dan George also makes a mean meat loaf sandwich. There's also the usual bowling alley-style appetizers like deep fried mushrooms, nachos and and cheese stix.
Behind the counter was Dan George cooking up the burgers. George knows his way around a kitchen. His grandmother was a legendary cook who would make large dinners for workers on the family farm when George was a child. His mother learned to cook from her mother (Dan's grandmother) and she opened and ran Arlene's, a small restaurant in Coon Rapids. George worked for his mother and when she closed up nearly 20 years ago after an 11 year run, George moved over to Coon Bowl III and has been flipping burgers every since.
The burgers are an 80/20 mix of beef to fat and come from a locker/butcher in nearby Arcadia, IA. They're hand-pattied and cooked on a well-worn and well-seasoned flat top grill. The burgers are thick and they take about 15 minutes to cook. And George doesn't season the burgers unless customers ask for it.
I was a little worried because Dan George walked away from the grill and was in a back room for a LONG before he flipped it and let my burger cook. You don't know how tempted I was to go behind the counter and turn the burger because I could tell it was getting overcooked on one side. He was back after letting the burger cook for more than 10 minutes on the one side. I was worried that it would be overcooked.
Dan George put the burger in the basket with the crinkle-cut fries and wordlessly placed it in front of me on the counter. To look at the burger at first, it didn't look like an award winning burger. The bun was just a normal bun that had been lightly toasted on the flat top grill. A single piece of cheese adorned the top of the good-sized burger. I had asked for dill pickles and sliced onions and they were resting underneath the burger patty. Looking at it from the side, however, it looked promising.
The first bite told me what I feared. It was overcooked. It wasn't juicy (as promised, according to news articles I'd read on the burger) and had sort of a charred taste to the outside. I was disappointed. But the burger did have good flavor, but it just wasn't moist enough for me. However, as I kept taking bites, it seemed to settle down a bit and the flavor with a little bit of juiciness began to shine through. By the time I finished the burger, I'd decided that it was a pretty good burger. Not worthy of a "Best of" award on any level that I've had, but still better than the first "Best Burger in Iowa" winner at Sac County Cattle Company (click here to see that entry) and last year's winner at 61 Chophouse (click here to see that entry), but not as good as the 2011 winner at the Rusty Duck in Dexter, IA (click here to see that entry).
By the way - a quick word on the fries. I'm not big on crinkle-cut fries, but these held up well compared to other bowling alley fries I've had. They weren't the best bowling alley French fries, but they went well with the burger.
I've now had all of the winners of the "Best Burger in Iowa" contest (save for the 2014 winner Brick City Grill in Ames - and I'll be eating there soon) and I'll have to say that while the burger at Coon Bowl III was good, it was disappointing because I had such high hopes. Dan George simply overcooked the burger. I don't know if that's the norm for his burgers or what, but it needed to come off about two or three minutes earlier. Most of the juiciness had been cooked out of the burger, but it wasn't so overcooked that the complete life was gone from it. I don't know if I'll make it back to Coon Rapids at some point, but I would go back and give them another try. The only thing I ask is that they cook the burger consistently.