The Best Food and Drink in Iowa for 2019
December 20, 2018
There’s more to Iowa than just corn
The Best Food and Drink in Iowa
Located in the heart of the Midwest, Iowa residents love all the classic comfort foods America has to offer. Craving corned beef? You can find it in Iowa. Cornbread? That’s there, too. We promise that they also eat foods that don’t have corn in the name. Total coincidence. We’ve rounded up the best of the state’s eats as part of our second annual guide to the best food and drink in every state.
From a culinary standpoint, Iowa is perhaps best known for its internationally-acclaimed state fair with some absolutely wild state fair foods. You'll also find plenty of farm-fresh dishes and creative comfort classics.
Over the course of the past year we’ve honored everything from its best hot dogs and brunch spot to its best bar and craft beer in our comprehensive and wide-ranging lists and rankings, compiled through extensive research and with input from a wide network of site contributors, bloggers, journalists, and chefs.We’ve compiled these into individual galleries celebrating the best food and drink in every state, and you can find our Iowa gallery ahead.
Best Airport Restaurant: Portermill (Des Moines International Airport)
Locally sourced ingredients and local craft beers grace the menu of Portermill, which has 18 different Iowa beers on tap in addition to over 30 local bottled and canned beers, as well as a wine list and craft cocktails. On the food side, sustainability is important to the menu which includes many in-house items such as salad dressings, fries, and breads for their sandwiches and burgers.
Best Bar: El Bait Shop (Des Moines)
It’s all about craft beer here at El Bait Shop, a rustic bar populated with taxidermy, beer signs, and bicycles. The bar also doubles as Des Moines’ “unofficial bicycle headquarters,” given its proximity to a number of bike trails in downtown Des Moines. With more than 185 beers on tap and 100 by the bottle, this is a beer-lover’s paradise. Try the Root Down shot, made with locally produced Millstream Root Beer and Jägermeister, and enjoy the fish tacos and bacon-wrapped tater tots while chatting with beloved bartender Joe Tolpingrud.
Best Beer: Kentucky Brunch Brand Stout
If you can get your hands on this beer, you’re one lucky ducky. A barrel-aged imperial stout brewed with coffee, this beer is only released once a year, 300 to 400 bottles at a time, and only at the Toppling Goliath brewery. If you manage to nab one of these elusive beers, you will taste a massive maple aroma, followed by hints of chocolate and hazelnut. And then, you’ll understand why this is considered to be among the best beers in the world.
Best Brunch: Americana (Des Moines)
This classic American restaurant draws crowds during the week for its stellar steaks, share plates, and signature pizza pot pie, but Americana really shines on the weekends, when it unveils its Bombshell Brunch Buffet and offers it until 2:30 pm. More than 40 items are available for the taking, including all the classic breakfast dishes, classic comfort fare, a grilled cheese station, a mashed potato bar (!), a build-your-own breakfast taco station, a ton of desserts, and bottomless Bloody Marys and mimosas. Plenty of gluten-free items are available as well.
Best Burger: Zombie Burger & Drink Lab (Des Moines)
The fun Zombie Burger & Drink Lab has a vaguely horror-related theme, but the spectacular burgers served here certainly aren’t novelties. There are more than 20 different burgers on offer, with cheeky names including Dead Moines (smoked Gouda, prosciutto, ham, and truffle mayo), The Walking Ched (a breaded and fried mac and cheese bun, bacon, Cheddar, onion, cheese, and mayo), Undead Elvis (peanut butter, fried bananas, bacon, American cheese, a fried egg, and mayo), and Juan of the Dead (green chile and cheese croquette, Monterey Jack, caramelized onion, and chipotle mayo). There are also several vegan options (including one made with a Beyond Meat patty), and a stellar pork tenderloin sandwich, because this is Iowa, after all.
Best Chili: George the Chili King Drive Inn (Des Moines)
At George the Chili King, a Des Moines standby since 1952, you’ll still find owner George Karaidos himself, now well over 80 years old, behind the counter spooning up his signature chili all day long. His insanely rich chili starts with a whole pot of melted beef fat, to which ground beef and a proprietary seasoning mix is added. The end result tops hot dogs and burgers, and is available by the bowl, pint, and quart. After one spoonful, you’ll understand why they sell it by the quart!
Best Chinese Restaurant: Le’s Chinese Bar-B-Que (Des Moines)
Photo by Yu-Ren L. via Yelp
With ducks, pork, and chicken hanging in the window, it’s hard to resist sampling the roasted meat at Le’s, and thankfully it’s also for sale by the pound to-go. But grab a seat and sample some of their dishes — including house special fried rice (loaded with roasted pork), roast duck soup, and char siu chicken wings — and you’ll also be rewarded. This place is the real deal.
Best Chocolate Shop: Chocolaterie Stam (Various Locations)
With traditions and recipes based in the Netherlands, Chocolaterie Stam makes some of the most exquisite chocolates in the United States. You can’t go wrong with any of their bonbons or truffles, which are so rich and decadent. But we’re a fan of the corn-shaped milk chocolate with a hazelnut praline filling. It’s the perfect nod to Iowa.
Best Coffee Shop: Horizon Line Coffee (Des Moines)
Located in the super hipster city of Des Moines, Horizon Line Coffee sources unique coffees from around the world in an ethical way and brings them home to a space that they try to keep as inclusive as possible to create an environment filled with coffee and happiness. A minimalistic look characterizes the shop, which also sells snacks such as scones and cookies to accompany your pick-me-up.
Best Cupcake: That One Cupcake Place (Hiawatha)
That One Cupcake Place is anything but an ordinary cupcakery. Since it opened, it has created more than 112 flavors to add to the equally diverse and delicious menu, from stuffed French toast (maple cinnamon cake with a cream cheese filling and maple buttercream) and That Unicorn (vanilla cake with rainbow vanilla buttercream) to even more adventurous creations like the bubblegum cupcake, a bubblegum-flavored cake with bubblegum-flavored buttercream.
Best Dive Bar: Deadwood Tavern (Iowa City)
Best Doughnuts: Mahalo's Coffee & Mini Donuts (West Des Moines)
The doughnuts at Mahalo’s may be tiny, but they pack a ton of flavor. These bite-sized doughnuts come in tropical-inspired flavors such as Blueberry Beach (blueberry glaze, whipped cream, powdered sugar), Turtle Bay (chocolate glaze, caramel glaze, pecans), and Apple Tiki (caramel glaze, apple cobbler, cinnamon sugar). They’re all so simply scrumptious, it’s a great thing you can eat a lot of them at once.
Best Farmers Market: Downtown Farmers Market (Des Moines)
From 7 a.m. to noon, this farmers market, spans nine city blocks and hosts nearly 300 vendors selling everything from fruits and vegetables to meat, dairy, bread, sweets, and even artisanal food and craftwork. The market also helps out the community by encouraging vendors to donate some of their fresh food to local homeless shelters in the area.
Best Food Truck: Waabs Piggin Out (Des Moines)
The exterior of this food truck ain’t glamorous, but that’s not why you come to Waabs — you come for the barbecue. Awesome Philly cheese steaks and fall-apart brisket are some of the fan favorites, but you can do no wrong with anything on the menu. The brisket sandwich is served on a focaccia roll and is topped with a sweet and tangy barbecue sauce.
Best French Fries: Django (Des Moines)
There’s a whole lot to love about the fries at Django. They’re cut to just the right thickness to be super-crisp on the outside but soft and fluffy on the inside, and an expert fry in duck fat leaves them all but greaseless. And to top it all off, the multiple dipping sauces they’re served with — including béarnaise, curry ketchup, and harissa aïoli — elevate them to new heights.
Best Fried Chicken: Sugapeach Chicken & Fish Fry (North Liberty)
Open since August 2016, Sugapeach is a sprawling restaurant with a huge buffet filled to the brim with Southern classics like mac and cheese, hush puppies, and fried okra. The star of the show, however — the fried chicken — is made to order so it spends no time under the heat lamp. The peppery breading is light and crisp, with tender chicken underneath.
Best Grocery Store: Hy-Vee
Photo by Tony G. via Yelp
Best Hot Dog: Bob's Drive Inn (Le Mars)
Bob’s Drive Inn serves locally made Wimmer’s natural-casing brand hot dogs, best enjoyed when topped with the restaurant's signature "loosemeat." This chunky beef sauce is ladled on top along with pickles and cheese and piled into a fresh-baked bun from the local Casey’s Bakery. Each end of the frank — the offerings here are called Bob Dogs — comically resembles a human thumb. Bob’s Drive Inn, which has been around since 1949 as a family-owned and -operated business, is a must-stop for any hot dog lover who finds him- or herself in this part of Iowa.
Best Hotel Restaurant: Main + Abbey (Sioux City)
Sioux City’s Hard Rock Hotel & Casino hosts the music-themed Main + Abbey, “where Main Street USA meets Abbey Road.” Thirty craft beers, specialty cocktails, and a fun and creative variety of classic American fare all come together for a really fun time. Start your meal with a pretzel with Goose Island fondue, wild boar poutine, and several styles of grilled wings; follow up with a Certified Angus fillet, ribeye, or strip, lobster mac and cheese, fish and chips, or ribs, and wash it all down with a local draft.
Best Ice Cream Stand: Whitey’s Ice Cream (Bettendorf)
Whitey’s Ice Cream/Yelp
For 85-years, Whitey’s has been dishing out what they’re calling “the best ice cream in the Midwest.” Customers can choose from flavors like Bubble Gum, Banana Graham, Blue Moon, and Chocolate Fudge Brownie.
Best Italian Restaurant: Baroncini (Iowa City)
Chef Gianluca Baroncini spent time cooking at some of Verona, Italy’s finest Italian restaurants (including the two-Michelin-starred Il Desco) before opening Baroncini. He’s committed to turning out spot-on interpretations of Italian classics made with fresh, seasonal, local ingredients, and the star of his menu is his fresh house-made agnolotti filled with a mixture of local beef and Parmigiano-Reggiano, tossed with a traditional brown butter and sage sauce.
Best Mexican Restaurant: Tacos Mariana’s (Des Moines)
Run by a Mexico native named Mariana, the tiny Tacos Mariana’s is serving some seriously legit tacos to thankful locals. Though Mariana’s offerings run the gamut from al pastor to chicken, chorizo, and tongue, you can’t go wrong with perfectly seasoned and grilled carne asada, topped with onions and cilantro and served with sliced radishes and lime. And make sure you try her rice and beans, made with slow-cooked heirloom mayocoba beans.
Most Expensive Restaurant: 801 Chophouse, Des Moines
Des Moines’ premier steakhouse, 801 Chophouse, serves only USDA Prime beef, so diners should expect to pay for the quality. Steaks start at $43 for a single cut prime rib, and top out at the $69 24-ounce porterhouse. While you’re shelling out, you might as well drop $19 on pancetta-roasted scallops and $10 on a foie gras torchon steak topper while you’re at it.
Most Outrageous Restaurant Dish: Adam Emmenecker Sandwich, Jethro's BBQ (Des Moines)
The Adam Emmenecker sandwich was inspired by athlete and former college basketball star Adam Emmenecker, having been made with all of his favorite foods. It consists of a big pork tenderloin and two Angus steak patties on top of which are piled applewood bacon, Texas brisket, fried cheese cubes, and Buffalo chicken tenders. The whole thing is then drenched in melted cheddar cheese and white cheddar sauce and served with your choice of side. Try going for the Adam Emmenecker Challenge, in which you have to finish the entire sandwich and a pound of waffle fries in 15 minutes. Win and you'll go on the Wall of Fame; lose, like Adam Richman did on the popular reality TV show “Man vs. Food,” and you'll join him on the Wall of Shame.
Most Romantic Restaurant: Centro (Des Moines)
One of Des Moines most acclaimed and upscale restaurants is also the state’s most romantic. Centro is located in a former Masonic temple, and today it features an open kitchen, white tablecloths, a long banquette, framed vintage Italian posters, and a winning Italian menu from chef Derek Eidson. Take your seat, order a nice bottle of wine, and enjoy dishes like pancetta-wrapped shrimp, handmade cavatelli with Italian sausage, chicken saltimbocca, Angus Iowa steaks, and a wide variety of pizzas.
Best Restaurant for Breakfast: Bluebird Diner (Iowa City)
This low-key, retro style diner serves elevated versions of classic country diner classics, like fresh-baked biscuits with cream gravy made with housemade sausage, eggs with homemade smoked pork chili verde, and cinnamon roll French toast. The buttermilk pancakes are definitely a standout; they’re slightly crisped from being griddled in butter, light and fluffy with just a little bit of chew, and topped with whipped butter and fresh maple syrup, with strawberries, blueberries, or grilled bananas optional.
Best Restaurant in the Middle of Nowhere: The Irish Shanti (Elgin/Gunder)
The Irish Shanti is located so far in the middle of nowhere that the town in which it gets its mailing address — Elgin; population: 683 — isn’t even the town in which the restaurant actually exists. That would be Gunder, which is not much more than one street. Yet for some reason we’re talking about it here, and that reason is the signature Gunderburgers — the sandwiches that literally put the town on the map (or the menu). Each patty of fresh Iowa beef weighs in at half-a-pound (and the Gunderburgers have two each), is served on a homemade bun, and comes with a large variety of topping options from which to choose. There are other casual American fare and seafood choices, but you should obviously opt for the Loaded Gunderburger with cheese, bacon, grilled mushrooms and onions, lettuce, tomato, and pickles — because if you’ve driven to this no-man’s land that’s three hours from Milwaukee, Minneapolis, and Des Moines, you’re probably hungry.
Best Pizza: Gusto Pizza Co. (Des Moines)
Yelp/ Andrea T.
You can practically envision the folks behind Gusto Pizza Co., friends Josh Holderness, Joe McConville and Tony Lemmo, sitting down over a few beers before opening their fresh and imaginative Des Moines pizza shop in 2011, and coming up with their menu as an hours-long snort-inducing punfest. “Thai Kwon Dough” with peanut sauce and chicken? “Seoul Food” pizza with Korean-style marinated skirt steak and Sriracha mayo? “Vincent Van Goat” with goat cheese and fried sweet peppers? “Fromage-A-Trois”? Very fun. But don’t mistake the levity for anything less than a serious approach to some delicious pizzas featuring some crispy-chewy thin crusts.
Best Sandwich: Loose Meat at Taylor’s Maid-Rite (Marshalltown)
Photo by Rachel R. via Yelp
An Iowa staple that’s a true Midwestern regional specialty, the “loose meat” sandwich (also called a tavern sandwich) can be thought of as a sloppy Joe without the sauce: crumbled seasoned ground beef on a bun, topped with mustard, pickles, and chopped onions. Even though you can find it in plenty of small local restaurants, the one to visit is Taylor’s Maid-Rite in Marshalltown. Going strong since 1928, it’s a truly historic institution; there are franchised locations all across the Midwest (just called Maid-Rite), but the original is the one to visit.
Best Soup: Bacon Iowa Corn Chowder, Vesta (Coralville)
Yelp/ Dong B.
Best Steakhouse: The Big Steer (Altoona)
Picture in your mind your idea of a restaurant called The Big Steer in Altoona, Iowa, and we bet you’ll come pretty close to what this place actually is, starting with a giant painted cow advertising its Sunday brunch and dinner specials and sign in the front window hawking “Iowa’s Finest Prime Rib.” The interior is charmingly dated, but you don’t come here for the décor; you come here for the Iowa beef. That prime rib is, in fact, paradigm-changing, and very well might be Iowa’s best. The homemade bread is legendary, the steaks are spectacular (order yours “Deburgo,” in a butter-garlic sauce that’s a regional specialty), and the Iowa pork is also worth sampling.
Best Taco: Carne Asada, La Juanita (Storm Lake)
The large number of Latino farm and meatpacking workers in Iowa has made the state’s small towns an unexpected destination for truly spectacular tacos, and with so much corn around the fresh tortillas are nothing to sneeze at. Case in point: La Juanita in Storm Lake, where Tyson Foods has a large operation. This beloved hidden gem has been in business for nearly 20 years, and serves a wide variety of authentic fillings like carne asada, chorizo, lengua, fish, chicken, carnitas, al pastor, tripe, liver, and chicharron. Their tortas and sopes are also popular, but carne asada tacos are a must-order, especially when topped with homemade hot sauce. For more states, check out our ultimate guide to the best food and drink in every state for 2019.