Relish Trays, Wood Paneling and Cornfields: My 2018 Trip to Iowa and Nebraska (part 1)

One of my major trip reports on the old roadfood message board was on a 2018 vacation my wife and I took to Iowa and eastern Nebraska. I was very disappointed to lose that report and am going to try my best to recreate it here. This one is going to be too long for a single post. So I’ll break it up into three parts. 

In addition to my usual love for visiting flyover country, Iowa is a state that received a lot of attention over the years from the regulars on the message board I keep referring to. It’s known for massive breaded pork tenderloin sandwiches (BPT), pork chops, loosemeat sandwiches, pie, and much more. I was also drawn to this region by an earlier trip report from one of the board’s other regulars, Dale Fine, whose “Chops in the Cornfields” report had me salivating. And then there was the desire to knock off a couple more state capitol buildings. My wife and I are trying to get to as many of those as we can while we’re still young enough. It’s just one of our things. And we made it to the state houses in both Des Moines, IA and Lincoln, NE on this trip.

A brief explanation of the title of this post: if there was a dining theme on this trip, it was classic old steakhouse-supper club type restaurants, all of which had wood paneling and some of which served complimentary relish trays at the beginning of the meal. Relish trays were more of a standard in the middle of the twentieth century when one went out for a nice dinner. The photo at the top of this page is the relish tray at the Redwood Steakhouse in Anita, Iowa, which I’ll return to later. And cornfields are everywhere when you drive around Iowa and eastern Nebraska. They often go on as far as the eyes can see. We have cornfields in Pennsylvania, but Iowa sometimes feels like one big cornfield that is broken up by the occasional town or city.

We flew into and started the trip in Iowa’s capital, Des Moines. For dinner the first night, we stayed near the hotel and checked out Fong’s Pizza, a place with classic decor, but some unusual food. There were standard Chinese food items on the menu, but also pizza with Chinese toppings. We had a General Tso’s pizza along with our egg rolls and crab Rangoon.

General Tso’s Pizza at Fong’s in Des Moines, IA

The next morning, we set out for the tiny town of Sully, Iowa, where we would be eating breakfast at the legendary – by roadfood standards – Coffee Cup Cafe. It would take longer than expected to get there, as the train in the photo below seemed to go on forever. We also caught our first glimpses of the cornfields that would never be far off for the duration of our vacation. It was sometimes difficult to tell where one ended and another began.

The Coffee Cup Cafe in Sully Iowa

The Coffee Cup was known for their pie on the roadfood message board, and that’s why I went there. In particular, I wanted to try their banana cream pie, which roadfood regular, Cliff Strutz, who knows more about pie than anyone I know, told me beforehand was a must try. He was certainly right. It was one of the best slices of pie I’ve ever had and was a nice cap to my classic breakfast plate. We tried a slice of coconut pie as well. It was also excellent, but I preferred the banana.

This place is about as classic as it gets for a small-town cafe. There are a number of places like this in small towns around the country, but there used to be a lot more.

The great banana-cream pie at the Coffee Cup in Sully, IA

As we made out way out of Sully following breakfast, we drove past this early twentieth century gem of a gas station.

From Sully, we moved on to the slightly larger town of Pella, Iowa, which has to be one of the nicest small towns in America. Of course, on the way there, we passed many more cornfields.

Pella was started during the 19th century by Dutch settlers, and it still has a very distinct Dutch theme; windmills, canals, and all.

Downtown Pella, IA
Clock tower in downtown Pella, IA.

After leaving beautiful Pella, we headed back to Des Moines and our first of two state capitol visits on this trip. Here I am in front of the Iowa state house.

I have posed for my wife in front of many a state house during our travels around the country

We’ve discovered over the years that many of the country’s state houses are next to state history museums. That was also the case in Des Moines, and we enjoyed our walk through the Iowa State Historical Museum.

Dinner that night was at the first of our scheduled steakhouse stops: Jesse’s Embers in Des Moines. Their chefs prepare big cuts of red meat over an open flame near the dining room. While they had wood paneling, and in spite of being open since 1963, Jesse’s was in better shape and felt more “up-to-date” than the other three steakhouses we visited on this trip.

My wife ordered a pork chop, and pork chops in Iowa are not like pork chops in Pennsylvania. This was a beauty. I had an excellent ribeye steak.

Pork Chop at Jesse’s Embers in Des Moines, IA
Jesse’s Ribeye with cottage potatoes

It had been an eventful, enjoyable and filling first full day in Iowa. I’ll return with more on this memorable vacation.

Published by BZ Maestro

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