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About three or four years ago my good friend – a tall, lanky Dutch Canadian – road along with me out to Montana where I spoke at a youth convention. (We have quite a few Canadians out here on the prairie and I enjoy hanging out with them. They tell me this is because I’m from Minnesota, which means I might as well be Canadian.) Anyway, spending that much togetherness time on the road opened my friends eyes to what makes me tick – good food. While he was content to hit the McDonald’s drive through, I wanted to find the hidden gems… the greasy spoons. You know, the places that have crooked floors, regulars who never need a menu, and artery clogging goodness. I’ll admit it – I’m food focused. (I’ve discovered that food and PhD work is a very bad combination.) There are a handful of restaurants I usually talk about with anyone who will listen. This past weekend I was able to get back to Pella, Iowa, where you’ll find George’s Pizza. Who would have thought the best place to eat in a Dutch community would be run by a Greek family? Then there’s the Airliner in Iowa City – best pizza I’ve ever had… oh, wait, Jakeeno’s in south Minneapolis is pretty good too. Speaking of the Twin Cities… Matt’s Bar, The Blue Door Pub, and Wally’s Falafel all added to my waste line last year. (I’ve found buying bigger pants is the best way to go. Sad, I know.)
I’m in the middle of completing CPE this semester down in Sioux City, Iowa, and I’ve become the designated person who decides where we eat. There are four of us… Sister Dina, a 60 year old nun who likes to bring cookies for me to take home for my kids, Ken, an Anglican deacon, and Dennis a Roman Catholic deacon. Quite the motley crew actually – trucking down the road in my subaru trying to find the best eats in town. Our first time out we went to La Juanitas – a Mexican restaurant housed in an old Chinese restaurant. (Best food in town they say, though I’m not sure who “they” refers to…) This past week we ended up at a Sioux City landmark – The Milwaukee Weiner House. Stepping inside is like traveling back in time to about 1963 or so. (It opened in 1918.) Look around and you can quickly tell it’s mostly locals – many of them were probably eating there in 1963. I mentioned the place to my Father-in-law who laughed. He went on to tell me about how he and his neighbor Mike used to eat there when they would make trips to Sioux City. I think he was surprised it’s still there.
The funny thing about restaurants like this is they were at one time the place to be. They used to be in the center of town – right in the middle of all the action. Now places like this have to be a destination, as most of the businesses have left and moved out by the mall. Out there you find all the usual suspects when it comes to food – Applebees, Texas Roadhouse – you know the type, the places that Office Space made fun of (not enough flair.) Most of those eateries try to recreate the atmosphere of places like the Milwaukee Weiner house, with all the pictures and memorabilia hanging on the wall. “Manufactured authenticity”… “hyper reality”… call it what you will. I’d rather eat wieners with the locals sitting on pea green vinyl booths, listening to the guy behind the counter ask me what I want…only to tell me that he has just that many wieners left.
Next time your driving out on the prairie, and find yourself going around Sioux City, take a detour through town and have a hot dog or two. Get everything on ’em and chase it down with a bowl of chili. I know… I should eat better. I plan on it – starting this summer. That, or I’ll have to buy bigger pants.