"Ottum-where?" That was my reaction when I was first asked to go to Iowa for work. Everything I had heard about the state lead me to believe that it would be endless fields of cows and corn with no signs of civilization anywhere to be found. I was caught off-guard when I got out of the airport in Des Moines and saw rolling hills and lush trees. It's kind of like Alabama, except much cooler and without icky-feeling humidity.
Of course the highlight of any trip is taking in the local cuisine, and in the midwest this means beef. Despite the short stay, I still managed to take in a primo steakhouse. "Holy expense account, Batman" you might think. Not so. I scored a good hot breakfast at the hotel both mornings (complete with sausage and eggs no less) and the client treated me to lunch on one of the days. Gooooooal!
And speaking of the hotel, let me take a moment to say that the Fairfield Inn in Ottumwa is excellent. Not only is the breakfast good, but the in-room Internet access is very speedy, the TV has working hook-ups for my DVD player and the guest services directory in the room actually has a decent number of listings for places to eat. Well played.
2804 N Court St
Ottumwa, IA 52501
A cardinal rule of staying in a city that you've never been in is to ask the desk clerk at the hotel what's good. This is doubly so for small towns. This is a restaurant that, without a recommendation from someone in the know, would be missed entirely. The modest little building at the northeast corner of US-63 and Rochester bears no signage to indicate that there's a restaurant inside and the spartan hours of Tuesday through Saturday from 5PM to 9PM means you could very well miss the Open sign hanging in the window. A special kudos to Polly at the front desk for pointing this gem out to me.
The decor lets you know that this pad isn't charging extra for the ambiance and it showed in the food. The salad was fresh and crisp, a good indicator of how seriously they take everything else. I heard that they make their own dressing, but it's hard to tell the difference with thousand island. Then came the bread: they freshly bake a small round of herb bread for every table. It was perfect from the crispy crust to the hot and chewy center. I was pretty excited for that slab of beef to hit the table by this point.
It was no disappointment at all. That filet was tender and flavorful throughout, a testament to the cattle-raising abilities of the region. (All their beef is USDA Choice, the best grade you can get without going with Certified Angus.) Amazingly, I still had room for dessert after the 10oz slab of meat had been relocated to my stomach. I went for a piece of peanut butter cake that topped things off perfectly.
With the great food and excellent value, I'm going to hand out a 4.75 out of 5 rating. (By the way, show your Fairfield Inn key and get a 10% discount. w00t!) The only thing that detracted from the meal was a piece of halibut going to another table with a fishy scent strong enough to make Oscar the Grouch take notice. Granted you get what you deserve by ordering a sea fish in the midwest from anywhere but a high-end eatery, but dang. Otherwise, set phasers for "tasty".
El Rancho Grande Mexican
206 S Jefferson St
Ottumwa, IA 52501
Apparently there is such a thing as a free lunch. This is where the client treated me to lunch Thursday, a little Mexican eatery tucked into a century-old brick warehouse. The decoration inside was appropriately gaudy, though I found myself wondering how the piñata and Virgin Mary statue fit in with the Irish flag and fake deer. I suppose that should have been the warning shot over the bow.
I will fully admit that I'm spoiled when it comes to Mexican food. After spending 14 years in Las Vegas, I had come to expect a pretty high caliber of cheap south-of-the-border cuisine from places staffed by natives with thick accents and/or no English vocabulary beyond making change. (If you ask me, it's better that way. The "D" from the health department might as well stand for "Dang good food".) It seems, however, that spending time so far northward AND far from Chicago, a center of Latino culture, had sucked a lot of the life right out of the dish I ordered.
Now granted, I opted for a cheaper lunch combo with a taco, burrito and rice. What I didn't expect is that the burrito would be filled with ground beef… and nothing else. No refried beans, no black beans, no nothing! It seemed a little too… "busy mom in a rush" to me, if you know what I mean. I suppose I expected a bit more to it than that. One of the guys with me had something that looked great that I wish I'd ordered: a fajita plate with shrimp, steak, chicken and pork. The half order would have stuffed me to the gills and it looked much better than what I was going for.
This is going to earn a 2.5 out of 5 for the mediocre burrito, decent taco and hope that the fajitas were as good as they looked.
Courtside Bar & Grill
2511 N Court St
Ottumwa, IA 52501
My original plan was to drop in on another steakhouse while out here, but I had the urge for a burger. A good bar burger. I dropped into this little bar that I drove past on the way back to the hotel this afternoon to see what I could rustle up.
The inside was a pretty typical sports bar (tons of TVs with sports, a pool table, etc.)… except that smoking inside is prohibited! Score! (While Utah has managed to stamp out cigarettes at all restaurants and is making headway on bars, Iowa is a state that still has smoking sections in its eating establishments.) I plopped down and figured I'd go for a bacon mushroom cheeseburger with grilled onions.
Let me tell you, this was a burger. When they called them a steak burger, this is no joke: the meat tasted like it had been ground fresh from the good parts of the cow. The waffle fries that came with it weren't half bad either. I'd rank it about on par with the Doodle's that I hit up in Hinesville last I was there. It's a 4.25 out of 5 experience.