Great American Bites: Iowa's iconic 'loose meat' sandwich

— -- The scene: Philadelphia has its cheesesteak, New York its pastrami on rye, and New Orleans its Po-Boy, but in Iowa, the regional sandwich of choice is the "loose meat." This unique sandwich is also widely known as a "Maid-Rite," because it is most associated with the 85-year old Maid-Rite chain, which probably invented it. The company is based in Iowa but now has more than 80 locations all throughout the Midwest, Plains states and Texas.

Today Maid-Rite has gone a bit corporate in trying to compete with the national chains, and its lengthy menu includes not only classic loose meat sandwiches, but variations including Philly, chili, bacon, and many more, plus unrelated dishes like corn dogs, fish sandwiches, burritos, pizza-ritos, sweet potato fries, taco salads, and even a loose-meat wrap. Several locations offer a large barbecue menu as well, with pulled-pork sandwiches and the like.

But this is decidedly not the case at Taylor's Maid-Rite in Marshalltown, Iowa, the only location with its own unique name. I asked numerous people in Des Moines where to get the best loose-meat and everyone I spoke to said without hesitation, "Taylor's in Marshalltown." Once a year, the restaurant delivers 300 sandwiches to feed the State Legislators at the Capital. All of this is significant, because Marshalltown is more than an hour from Des Moines - and several Maid-Rite franchises are much closer. But if Iowans think it is worth the extra effort to make the trip, who am I to argue? After all, Taylor's is unique among all Maid-Rites, largely unchanged since the day it opened, including the menu. It is small and freestanding, resembling a donut shop, and inside is a horseshoe-shaped counter surrounding the loose-meat grill. There is no drive-through. There is little in the way of decor except for a world map mural on one wall inscribed with the now signature Taylor's tagline, "Go around the world but come back again!" Regular customers do come back, some every day.

Reason to visit: Taylor's Maid-Rite (loose meat) sandwich, pie, shakes.

The food: Cliff Taylor purchased his franchise, just the third Maid-Rite, back in 1928 for the princely sum of $300. At this point, twelve years before the first McDonalds opened, franchising had not evolved into the legally structured science it is today. Blissfully free from following corporate dictates, the Taylor family has stayed true to its roots ever since, making this the closest thing to the original Maid-Rite you can find. Not only are there no tacos or corn dogs, the pies are still homemade, the menu is tiny, and it took 70-years for their biggest revolution: the placement of ketchup bottles on the counter, which occurred only after a months-long customer vote. Opinion is still strongly divided, and while one staffer advocated it, another claimed "ketchup ruins good meat," and many old time regulars insist on having the bottle removed from the counter in front of them on principle.

Depending on your perspective, the loose-meat sandwich is either an unformed hamburger or a sloppy Joe without the sauce. It is simplicity itself, ground beef cooked while being constantly stirred and mixed on a special sloped griddle that lets grease drain, with finely minced onion and nothing else. While owner Sandy Taylor Short still uses no seasoning, she says the other Maid-Rites now season their meat with "mostly salt and sugar." The pile of cooked meat with onions is put on a bun and traditionally accompanied with sliced pickles and mustard. Cheese, in the form of Land of Lakes American, is the most notable option, and added in the past two decades. The sandwich is served on a sheet of wax paper, which catches the extra meat that inevitably falls out as you eat it, which is why the only utensils at Taylor's are spoons, though some customers insist that the only proper way to eat the droppings is by scooping them up with potato chips.

"My grandpa lived in Newton, where they opened the second franchise, and he saw that and got the idea," said Taylor Short. "He started this place in 1928, and we moved from across the street in 1958. We still use our own meat supplier and grind the beef fresh every day downstairs. We don't use their seasoning. My grandmother used to make all the pies, now we have a woman in town who makes them from my grandmother's recipes." The pickles and buns are sourced from local manufacturers who have been providing them forever. Taylor's also makes its own ice cream, used in their excellent shakes and floats.

The Maid-Rite is a hearty and fun sandwich, but it will not blow anyone away with its taste, since it is rather bland cooked ground beef, and lacks the crust, juicy interior and palate feel of a burger. Then again, in this day and age, it is nice to see the food cooked in front of you and know that you are getting pure beef with no filler or additives. The shakes and pies help boost the enjoyment quotient substantially. Much of the pleasure comes from the place itself, the sense of eating history, and the incredibly friendly counter staff, all of whom are likely to serve you and talk to you at once. Exuding Midwestern hospitality, they are always glad to help first-time visitors properly enjoy the experience. If, like many displaced Iowans, you leave Taylor's with a lifelong craving, you will be glad to know that they now ship their sandwiches nationwide, with reheating instructions.

Pilgrimage-worthy?: Yes - if you are in Des Moines or near Marshalltown.

Rating: Mmmm! (Scale: Blah, OK, Mmmm, Yum!, OMG!)

Price: $ ($ cheap, $$ moderate, $$$ expensive)

Details: 106 South 3rd Avenue, Marshalltown, IA; 641-753-9684;

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Larry Olmsted has been writing about food and travel for more than 15 years. An avid eater and cook, he has attended cooking classes in Italy, judged a BBQ contest and once dined with Julia Child. Follow him on Twitter, @TravelFoodGuy, and if there's a unique American eatery you think he should visit, send him an e-mail at