Tuesday, March 24, 2009

An Iowan with a Big Heart

One of the many pleasures of full-time traveling is the opportunity to meet some special people. Some of these encounters are planned, but the majority are fortuitous meetings. Such was our introduction to Pam Ohsman.

On of the basis of an ad for the Iowa Cafe (Mesa, AZ) in the New Times' Best of Phoenix 2008, we stopped in on the way to a baseball game. As we pulled in to the parking lot, we were met with: "That's quite a truck." The admiring comments came from one of two white-aproned observers taking a break from the Cafe's kitchen.

As it turned out, one of our "greeters" was Pam Ohsman, the owner, cook, and heart of the Cafe. We spoke briefly about our travels and our ties to Iowa--Kate born in Clinton and both of us with ties to Iowa City. We asked her for directions to the ballpark, and she said, "Catch me after breakfast. Time to cook."

The Cafe's two dining rooms are built around two themes: The Colleges/Universities of Iowa Room (complete with pennants and memorabilia from every college and university in the state, especially U of Iowa and Iowa State U) and the John Deere Room.

Now that Chuck has told you about Pam, a 5.0 Addie person, it’s time to tell you about the food at the Iowa Café. When we started our travels, my first report dealt in length with the wonders of the Breaded Pork Tenderloin Sandwich. So I was ecstatic to see that one of the breakfast meats was the Breaded Loin (a smaller version of the lunch or supper tenderloin). Did I have a choice? No! I ordered the tenderloin with two eggs over easy, hash browns fried crisp, white toast, and gravy on the side. Chuck chose the griddle cakes with a side of bacon and a side of hash browns (is this a surprise?).

First to Chuck’s breakfast, three large and fluffy cakes served with real butter and real maple syrup. These were truly excellent griddle cakes with just a hint of the sharpness from the leavening. While this sharpness is not good in biscuits, it helps cut the sweet of the syrup when eating pancakes. And the smoky, not too salty, and crisp bacon was another perfect counterpoint. The home fries were discs about three eights of an inch thick and, while he did not ask that they be crisp, were fried crisp. Do you think he left anything uneaten? Right!

But I was in pork heaven. When I told Pam how happy I was to see breaded pork tenderloin on the menu, she told me that before she was the Iowa Café’s owner she was a customer and came for the pork tenderloin. Juicy on the inside and crisp on the outside, this is what pork tenderloin is meant to be. The breading that I find objectionable on chicken fried steak is perfect here. I finally decided that the smooth surface of the tenderloin as opposed to the dimpled surface of the cube steak makes the difference.

Let’s face it, eggs over easy are eggs over easy. These were well cooked with the right degree of runny yolk. And my extra crisp home fries were perfect – almost like thick potato chips. I had expected the normal white pepper gravy, but to my surprise, got a bowl of Pam’s great sausage gravy. The country style sausage had a good amount of sage (which I like) and a good amount of pepper. Just perfect for dipping bites of tenderloin. Now normally, toast is a throwaway. But I finished my breakfast with the remaining slice of toast and some of the sausage gravy. Quickly, the gravy was poured over the toast, and I had a second breakfast dish.

When we checked back with Pam after breakfast, she emerged from the kitchen, her hands covered with pie dough. Giving us directions to Cubs' Park took 30 seconds; talking about Iowa, the 2008 summer floods, and her fund-raising work took the next hour.

With the support of vendors, customers who donated money for the Operation Clean Plate buffet at the restaurant, and listeners to the local TV station that carried day-long up-dates from the Cafe on the progress of the fund raiser, Pam raised $12,000 for flood victims.

She shared stories of people's generosity and offers to help with the second and third fund-raisers and the reactions of the families that she helped directly with clothing, food, and other materials that they needed in her hometown of Cedar Rapids.

As we were leaving, we took a look at the lunch menu (you can order breakfast, lunch, or supper all day) and saw the “Maiden Rite.” This is Pam’s take on that famous loose meat (yes, you read that right) sandwich that was introduced in Muscatine, Iowa in 1926 and was later franchised throughout the Midwest. This can best be described as a Sloppy Joe without the Joe--the tomato--and seasoned with a secret blend of spices. A number of versions exist, including that horror of school lunchrooms, the Maid-Rite mixed with canned chicken gumbo soup to stretch the meat to feed more students.

So a return trip to the Iowa Café before a baseball game was in order--just for the Maiden Rite. I must admit that it has been so long since I have eaten the real Maid Rite so I can’t tell you how close Pam comes to the original. But I will tell you that I was transported back to the 50’s--the golden days of my youth--when I would go with my parents to the local Maid Rite restaurant.

Chuck ordered his sandwich with a side of fries – yes, this was 10:00 a.m.--but I went a different route.

I wanted to see if Pam’s excellent sausage gravy was matched by equally excellent biscuits, so ordered the half order of biscuits and gravy. I have come to realize that biscuits in the Southwest tend to be denser than those in the South, and these were a very good version of the Southwest biscuit.

As I finished my meal, I noticed the waitress serving a table of four elderly (no, Chuck and I are not yet elderly) gentlemen an enormous sweet roll each. I had to have one, so I talked Chuck into sharing one with me. It came warm from the oven with the icing still dripping over the sides. Absolutely wonderful! We asked the waitress who makes the sweet rolls and it turned out to be Pam--a woman of many talents. I should also note that no hot dogs or other foods were consumed that afternoon at the game.

The Iowa Café has been a three time winner of The Best of Phoenix Award for both their apple pies and donuts (not enough time or stomach room to try either). If you are an Iowan far from home and want, as a plaque on the wall describes, “Hog Sloppin’, Field Plowin’, Hair on Chest Food,” then a visit to the Iowa Café is in order. We give Pam, her big heart, and her big food 5.0 Addies. Where else can you find a restaurant that brings back the Midwest--Maid Rites, breaded pork tenderloin, “soda pop,” “supper?” Already we are looking for campgrounds nearer Mesa should we return to the Phoenix area again.

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