The Iowa Beef Industry Council in conjunction with the Iowa Cattleman's Association named their top burger for 2016 and it belonged to the Chuckwagon located in Adair, IA, a small community about 55 miles west of Des Moines along Interstate 80. I was going out to Omaha earlier this year and since I'd tried nearly every best burger award winner over the past few years (with varied results), I thought I'd make the time to stop in and have a burger at the Chuckwagon.
Kim Reha was a native of Adair who started working in the restaurant business at the age of 14. She had considered becoming a surgical technician, but she found that working in restaurants was more fun. In 2008, Kim bought the Happy Chef restaurant along Interstate 80 at the young age of 22. She eventually started to make improvements on the property - the building underwent a wholesale make-over in 2012, and in 2014 she changed the name to the Chuckwagon to commemorate the Jesse James Chuckwagon Days celebration that Adair has each July. The Chuckwagon eventually beat out 6000 entrants of the Best Burger in Iowa contest for 2016, a 33% increase in the number of nominees from 2015.
Now, I wasn't familiar with the Chuckwagon as much as I had been familiar with the Happy Chef located on a county road at Exit 76 on Interstate 80. (see map) I know I had made hundreds of passes by the place since I first went out to Omaha in the 70's, stopping in at the Casey's across the street to get gas a handful of times. (There's also a pizza place that I've wanted to try in Adair - Zipp's Pizzeria - but they're only open from 5 p.m. to 9 p.m. through the week and the timing has never worked out on my trips to and from Omaha.) When I found out that the Chuckwagon was the old Happy Chef, I immediately knew where the place was.
Upon entrance into the place, the big plaque proclaiming the Chuckwagon to have the best burger in Iowa in 2016 hangs just inside the door. The decor to the restaurant is somewhat modern rustic, if that's the right term.
There are two dining rooms in the restaurant - I was escorted into the south dining room that was brightly lit from the day's brilliant sunshine. I was given a menu to look over to see what I wanted to get. In addition to burgers, the Chuckwagon has a wide variety of foods for breakfast. lunch and dinner.
There isn't a designated "best burger" on the menu and that sort of threw me off. When the waitress came by to take my order, I asked, "So, which one was the best burger in Iowa?"
She said, "Oh, well, all of them are." I was sort of confused because I knew from previous Best Burger competitions that a friend of mine who owned a restaurant had entered that there had to have a specific burger on the menu that was nominated. "Any of the burgers that you order would be considered the best in Iowa," she explained to me. I didn't quite buy that considering other "Best in Iowa" burger winners had one burger they served that was deemed as the best, but I went along with her anyhow. She said that the namesake Chuckwagon burger - a six-ounce burger patty with sautéed onions, mushrooms, bacon, tomato and Thousand Island dressing - was probably their signature burger on the menu.
I almost went with that before I saw that they had a mushroom-Swiss cheese burger on the menu. I asked her if she could put a couple pieces of bacon on it. She asked if I wanted fries with the burger - "We have never-ending French fries", she proudly proclaimed. I told her I'd take some fries, but I doubted I'd want very many of them.
After awhile she brought the burger and fries out. The burger was covered with a blanket of Swiss cheese topped with sautéed mushrooms and a couple strips of bacon criss-crossed on top. There was a dollop of mayonnaise on the top of the burger that I would have probably told her to hold had I known that's how they dressed the burger. The bun was lightly toasted and spongy.
The burger was flat-topped grilled, somewhat fat and juicy. And the first bite told me this was a fine burger. With everything that was going on with the different tastes - the bacon, mushrooms, Swiss cheese plus the ketchup and mustard I put on for condiments - I could taste the rich flavor of the burger meat through all of that. The bun held it all together very well and the taste of the bun confirmed what I always say - the key to a good burger is a good bun. This was a very good burger.
Judging who has the best burger in Iowa is both subjective and objective. The judges have a subjective criteria in which they use as a baseline for determining which burgers are the best, but in the long run it's usually an objective opinion that determines the winner each year. Is the burger at the Chuckwagon the best in Iowa? I think they acquitted themselves nicely from any doubts that their burger was deserving of the title for 2016. How did it shape up against the other best burgers? I've only had six of the seven ones that have been awarded Best Burger in Iowa, but I think the burger at the Chuckwagon would definitely fall within the top three of the winners I've had so far.