On my way to Sioux City and Northwest Iowa on a recent trip, I decided to stop into Sac City to see if I could get into Sac County Cattle Company and try their award winning burger. I had stopped once before on the way back from Sioux City, but at that time they didn't open until 5 p.m. and it was around 1 p.m. when I got there. (They are now open from 11 a.m. to 1 p.m. through the week.) This time, I rolled up in front of the place at 6 p.m. and they were definitely open.
The reason I wanted to stop at Sac County Cattle Company was because they won the inaugural "Best Burger in Iowa" contest in 2010. My goal has been to try each of the winners of the contest and Sac County Cattle Company has been on my list for quite sometime.
Doug Kruchten is the man behind the Sac County Cattle Company. He grew up on a cattle farm in nearby Fonda, IA and joined the Marine Corps after graduating from high school in the late 60's. He came back to farm full time until he got a degree in finance and banking from Buena Vista University in Storm Lake in 1984. He worked various positions at banks in Iowa and South Dakota, but he wasn't far from the farm life. He had been raising purebred Charlois cattle on his farm in Iowa before starting a similar operation in Missouri. But the restaurant business bug had been in him for quite sometime. In 1999, he bought the Hay Market bar in his hometown of Fonda. He eventually expanded into a former bank next door to the bar to put in a restaurant. But he knew that he wanted a steak house of his own.
He looked at a number of towns in Northwest Iowa before settling upon Sac City. A former clothing store stood vacant on what was Old Highway 20 going through town and in 2007, he bought the building and opened Sac County Cattle Company. He opened on a Tuesday - without any fanfare or advertising - and served 35 people that night. The small town gossip mill got cranked up and by the following Friday night he served over 250 people. The restaurant - which draws people from as much as 60 miles away - averages 550 to 600 people served on a Friday/Saturday weekend.
How they won the first "Best Burger in Iowa" award is also an interesting story. It turns out that he accidently bribed the judges when they came in to try the burger.
Two men came in one late afternoon, coming off the local golf course to come in and have dinner. It turned out that not many people were in the place just after it opened and Kruchten got to talking to the men. They were asking Kruchten all sorts of questions about the menu. He told them that they needed to try either the pork chop or one of Sac County Cattle Company's signature 16 ounce ribeye steaks - the "Dude" - to find out what his place was all about. Curiously, the two ended up ordering burgers. One got the bacon cheeseburger, the other got the mushroom/Swiss cheese burger. Still figuring that he wanted these guys to get the real gist of the place, he still brought out a 16 ounce ribeye after the guys finished their burgers so they could sample the steak. Of course, these were the judges for the Iowa Beef Industry Council and they deemed the mushroom/Swiss cheese burger as the first "Best Burger in Iowa" winner. (Now, how would you like to have THAT job? Go play golf in ten locations, go eat a burger and then determine the best burger out of the ten.)
As I was pulling up in front of the Sac County Cattle Company, a large group was climbing out of a number of vehicles getting ready to walk into the place. By the time I got inside, the place had about 20 people in the dining area toward the front of the restaurant. It turns out the other 20 or so people had gone to a private dining area upstairs in the restaurant.
When I walked in the door, I was greeted with a somewhat large sign, "No Credit Cards or Debit Cards. Cash only." OK, fair enough. I had cash, no problem
I took a seat at the small bar along the east wall of the restaurant. There were two dining areas on the main floor - the front of the two dining areas on the main floor was where the diners were seated at tables. Like most Iowa steakhouses/supper club, Sac County Cattle Company also had a salad bar. It also appeared to have a hot table for a buffet, as well.
There were two young ladies who were working the dining room and acting as bartenders. It seemed like everyone came in at once and they were scurrying about. A menu was on the bar and I started to look through it. Steaks, pork chops and their burgers were the main items on the menu.
One of the gals was behind the bar and she was mixing up some drinks for one table. She took a look at me and said, "When did you sneak in here?" I told her I'd only been there a few moments, no big deal. I told her that all I wanted to try was one of their burgers. I ordered the mushroom/Swiss burger and asked if I could get bacon on it, too. She didn't acknowledge either "yes" or "no" as she was writing down the order. She asked me if I wanted any sides - a side of fries was $5.00. I said, "No, thanks." And I got a beer while I waited for the burger.
It was about 20 minutes after I ordered when the burger came out to me. The other server who was working the dining room wordlessly sat it in front of me. The burger was pretty plain looking at first - the bun was just an ordinary bun. But the burger was large and thick.
Opening up the bun, it was covered in a large amount of canned mushrooms. Not a deal breaker, but they were lightly sauteed. There were so many mushrooms that they covered the bacon that was cut and placed on top of the burger. A single square of Swiss cheese was placed on the burger, not really melted onto the patty.
I got to looking at the texture of the burger and I could tell that it was overcooked. Not lightly overcooked - severely overcooked. The first bite of the burger confirmed it. It thought at first there was some sort of a seasoning on the outside of the burger patty making it sort of crunchy. But if there was it was so burnt that I couldn't taste it.
There was no juiciness to the burger, it was cooked through to a very well done, and was almost as hard as leather. I had to walk over to an empty table to get some ketchup to put on the burger (and to later dip it into) just to be able to get it to go down. Even the bacon - which was thick cut - was overcooked, leathery and hard to chew. I ended up pulling the bacon off the burger because it was inedible. That's right - inedible bacon because it was so overcooked and dry. Seriously, I came about *this* close to calling it done about halfway through the burger.
After our experience at the 2013 "Best Burger in Iowa" winner - 61 Chophouse (now closed, but click here to see the entry), I'm starting to think that a properly cooked burger to the Iowa Beef Council judges means to have the life completely cooked out of the burger. The one I had at Sac County Cattle Company was even worse than the bad burgers my wife and I had at 61 Chophouse - and we couldn't believe they would be that bad and still win the award. If my burger at Sac County Cattle Company was an anomaly, then I'll have to live with that. But if it was the norm, I can't figure out how in the hell they would win the best burger award four years ago with a burger like that.