Earlier this summer, I decided to go on a little tour of the attractions and eateries of small town Iowa. Now, I love rural Iowa – it’s chock full of those hidden gems that are sadly overshadowed by the Des Moines-centric culinary scene. Although this trip was intended to be food-focused, I knew what destination would guide my route.
I’ve had a lifelong love of horror films and all things macabre. Halloween is the holiday I get most excited for – if there’s mayor of Halloween Town, consider me a candidate! So the natural destination for this rural Iowa outing was the Villisca axe murder house.
Located in Villisca, Iowa, this is the house where J.B and Sarah Moore, their four children and two young house guests were tragically murdered on June 10, 1912. The murder remains unsolved, and the house is reputed to be haunted. The house has been restored to 1912 condition and is listed on the National Register of Historic Places and is open for tours and overnight stays if you dare. The house has been featured on many TV shows and holds the top spot on the “America’s Most Terrifying Places” list.
We departed Des Moines with the goal of enjoying breakfast in a small town café. I targeted Walnut, Iowa as our destination – specifically, a cafe called Aunt B’s. Walnut is a picturesque town just off I-80 west; we headed to Antique Street in the old downtown. The brick-lined street is packed with great antique shops – visiting them would have been a great day trip on its own!
We headed in to Aunt B’s and were promptly seated. It’s important to understand how to order when you are in unfamiliar territory. Look around and see what others are having and if they’re locals, follow their lead! I was looking for good, honest, small-town cooking and zeroed in on the “Everything Hash Browns” with shredded potatoes, slices of link sausage, mushrooms, diced onion and peppers finished with melted American cheese. I upped the ante by requesting two fried eggs on top it all off.
It was everything I love about small town Iowa – comforting, delicious and satisfying. Although I don’t typically eat that style of breakfast, its heft did not overwhelm me and proved to be a great base for our trip.
Even though we were there in the morning, I couldn’t pass on their made-from-scratch pies. A variety of cream and fruit pies were available, and I opted for a slice of cherry. It was one of the finest pies I’ve ever tasted with tender, flaky crust.
I always say that the scenery plays a huge role in the success of a meal. Eating a meal in Paris overlooking the Eiffel Tower, or enjoying a Ceviche Oceanside in Mexico make those signature meals taste better. The same holds true for me when it comes to small town America and scratch cooking, and the antique décor and knickknacks of Aunt B’s captured the culture of the neighborhood.
After breakfast, we passed through a few of the neighboring antique shops. I picked up an old beer bottle from Heidel Brau, a Sioux City-based brewery. I also picked up a Barnabas Collins Dark Shadows board game from the late 60’s. From Walnut, we drove south toward Atlantic and on our way to Villisca.
Villisca & TJ’s Cafe
When we drove into the town square, the locals instantly knew why we were there. “You looking for the house?” They pointed us in the right direction, just four blocks away from the center of town.
We pulled up to a house with large sign identifying it as the “Villisca Axe Murder House.” At first glance, the house (and several others in town) looked frozen in time. A walk around the property gave us our spooky fix – then we made a quick stop by the town cemetery to pay our respects.
It might not have been the most appetizing way to spend the pre-lunch hour, but I still had food on the brain so we ducked into TJ’s Café. If you’re ever in Villisca, I’d suggest you do the same and order their hand breaded, deep-fried pork tenderloin. The sandwich is larger than most, expertly breaded and fried without being greasy and capped with a “white squishy bun.” Their tenderloin is a bit thicker than the standard, which offers a greater meat-to-breading ratio.
Coon Bowl III
We took a different route as we headed back toward Des Moines which brought us through Coon Rapids. We had two goals with our visit – the first was a stop at the 2012 Iowa’s Best Burger Award-winning restaurant (which also happens to be the town’s premier bowling facility), The Coon Bowl III.
The Coon Bowl III serves up half pound burgers grilled on a flat top grill, lightly seasoned and simply dressed. You can’t go wrong with a basic cheeseburger here! The burger grind was neither too fine nor too coarse; combining that with an ideal fat content and well heated griddle resulted in a perfectly juicy burger, even at well-done.
The burgers used quite possibly the freshest, squishiest of the packaged buns on the market. American cheese was the perfect companion; there was no need for condiments, but they’re provided if you insist. The burger is worth the trip alone – in fact, I’ve traveled many more miles for less!
The last event of our day trip was a visit to the figure eight races (also in Coon Rapids), quite possibly the most entertaining sporting event out there. It was my first time at “the races,” and I can’t wait to go back. It was clear to me that the participants don’t do it for the money or the trophy… but rather because they love doing it. It was at the end of the night that I realized that chefs and figure eight drivers have a lot in common; we both love what we do and we’re a little bit crazy!
I encourage you to take a little time and enjoy some of Iowa’s hidden treasures – we live in a beautiful place, and every bit of it is worth exploring.