At exit 173 off of Interstate 80 through Iowa is a little place with a very audacious name - Iowa's Best Burger Cafe. It's part restaurant, part gas station, part convenience store and it also has a campground just to the east of the building. It had been years since I'd had a burger from Iowa's Best Burger Cafe, so on a trip down I-80 a few weeks ago I decided to stop in and see how their burger stacks up against some I'd had in recent times.
First of all, let me give you a little history and a disclosure about the gas station. I grew up about 1.5 miles away from the place, as the crow flies. When I was younger - as in grade school age - I would ride my bike out the station and just hang out watching the cars come and go, wondering where the people were from, where they were going. I was envious of those people going east or west along I-80 and dreaming of traveling to someplace exotic beyond the borders of Jasper County. Like Davenport or Omaha - exotic places like that. Well, they were exotic to a 10-year-old kid who developed a bad case of wanderlust from reading encyclopedias and National Geographic's.
The original gas station - a DX station - was opened in the mid-60's a couple three years after I-80 came through. The first owner was a local garage owner, Lysle White (it was pronounced Lyle, but we used to joke around by calling him Ly-sell), and his wife, Nadine. Lysle was a short, thin, white haired man who had some disorder where he shook all the time (Shakey was also a nickname many gave him). Nadine was a portly woman who had a quick laugh and definitely wore the pants in the family. After a couple years of going out to watch the cars come and go, Lysle put me to work doing menial jobs around the place, from washing windows on cars to picking up trash. He'd pay me in pop and Slim Jim's because it was the law that you had to be 14 years old to work at an establishment along the interstate (or so he told me at the time). Lysle told me one time, "When you turn 14, I'm going to really put you to work!"
By the time I got to 14, other interests in life had come to the forefront and it had been quite sometime since I'd spent an afternoon at the old White's DX station just off Interstate 80.
Through the years, a number of people owned the place after the White's passed away. I remember that an old neighbor when I was growing up by the name of Clinton (Biff) Gifford owned it for a while, calling the place Kellduff, a combination of the two towns the exit served - Kellogg and Killduff. But I had completely lost track of who the owners were after Biff sold the business.
I got off exit 173 and pulled into the parking lot of the place around 1:30 on a sunny afternoon (see map). I went inside and it hadn't changed much - if any - from the last time I'd been in the place a number of years ago. I couldn't remember the last time I was in there, but it had to be over six or seven years ago. I don't get back to Kellogg all that often since my father passed away in 2003. And if I do go, I'm there for a short time to see my sister and brother-in-law who now live in the house where we grew up.
When I walked up to the counter, there was a large guy with a very familiar face taking the orders and working the cash register. It was Connie Van Maaren, an old neighbor who grew up about a half mile away from our family. Connie was older than me, closer to the age of my two oldest sisters, and had built a house just down the road and just over our property line about 40 years ago. I recognized him and reintroduced myself to him. He shook my hand and he said, "Boy, if you wouldn't have said who you were, I wouldn't have recognized you!" We figured it was probably 30 years or more since we'd last seen each other.
I asked him if he owned the place and he said, "No, I just work here. Or I should say, they work me!" He had worked at Maytag for years and had lost his job when they closed up the plants in Newton a few years ago. He said, "I was lucky, I had enough time in so I was able to retire, but I still do things like this to keep me busy."
Connie told me the owners of the place were Rick and Diane Wenndt who bought the place back in 1987. The Wenndt's built a house across the road from the gas station and then put in a small restaurant with burgers and tenderloins, along with ice cream. They also bought the land just to the east of the station and put in a pretty nice little RV/tent campground.
The menu at Iowa's Best Burger Cafe is pretty basic with, of course, burgers, homemade tenderloins, chicken sandwiches and their homemade barbecue beef sandwiches. They also have something called the Samson which is a quadruple cheeseburger (below left). I understand that if you eat the whole thing in one sitting they will give you a t-shirt commemorating the event. In addition to the food, Iowa's Best Burger Cafe also has a number of flavors of ice cream.
I ordered up a double cheeseburger from Connie. He said that fries and cole slaw come with the burger meal, but I passed on all that. I just wanted a burger. The way Iowa's Best Burger Cafe cooks their burgers is on a flame-broiled oven with a rotating rack. I've had a number of burgers cooked this way and it's a no-frills, quick and efficient way to fully cook a burger on both sides with the juices dripping onto the lower fire and causing flare-ups that help enhance the taste of the burger. Above right is Diane Wenndt pulling a burger patty off of the broiler. She put my double cheeseburger in a foam container and handed it to me over the counter.
Although the burger patties start out frozen, they're thoroughly cooked with the flame broiler. The cheese was melting on the burger patties as I pulled it out of the container. A large amount of fresh veggies - lettuce, tomato and onions - were on top of the burger. Actually, there was almost too much lettuce on top. But the burger, itself, had a very good taste to it. The bun was moist and helped with the overall taste of the burger. While the burger was very good, I certainly can't call it the best burger in Iowa. There are others I would certainly say are better. But the one at Iowa's Best Burger Cafe could end up on as an honorable mention on my Best Burgers list when I update it in 2012. It was, indeed, a very good burger.
As the name of this blog implies, I'm here to give you tips on out of the way places where you can get some pretty good food. Although Iowa's Best Burger Cafe is not quite off the beaten path, it offers an alternative to the fast food chains for a very good and very quick burger. Little places like Iowa's Best Burger Cafe don't stay in business for nearly 25 years by having mediocre food. And the Wenndt's put their reputation on the line everyday with their very presumptuous name for their little burger place. So you've got to admire them for persevering and keeping it going. It's a good burger. Stop in and try one sometime.