starts at Hamburg Inn No. 2. Ever heard of the Coffee-bean Caucus? No? Then read further.
“Joe Panther started the Hamburg Inn…in the mid 1930s. Later, Joe's brother Adrian joined the business and eventually bought the restaurant from Joe. In 1948, Mrs. Van's Restaurant at 214 North Linn Street came up for sale and was bought by another brother, Fritz and his wife, Fran. (It) would become known as the Hamburg Inn No. 2. Adrian and Fritz…developed several restaurants, the Hamburg Inn's No.1 and No. 2, the Big Ten Inn on Riverside Drive, and the Airport Inn in Iowa City. They also had the Hamburg Inn No.3 in Cedar Rapids.... As of 2011, Hamburg Inn No. 2 is the only location remaining of the three. Dave Panther, Fritz and Fran's son, bought the restaurant in 1979 from his parents and has continued the tradition”
This was one of each of our favorite “haunts” during our time at the University of Iowa. But we don’t remember ever having gone there together. But a revisit to the “Burg” is de rigueur for returning alums—and we were no exception.
But a visit to Hamburg Inn No. 2 isn’t obligatory for just grads. If you want to have a chance of winning the Iowa caucuses (a system of awarding convention delegates that stymies even Iowa residents), a visit to Hamburg Inn is a wise strategy.
“During the Iowa Caucuses, candidates seeking the presidential nomination of their party frequently meet caucus-goers at the Hamburg Inn. The restaurant conducts a Coffee-bean Caucus, in which each guest is given a coffee bean to place in the jar of his/her candidate. Howard Dean won in 2004.... In 2008, Barack Obama won the Democratic contest…, (and) Mike Huckabee won for the Republicans” (Wikipedia).
The “Burg” is so notorious in the political life of Iowa that one wall sports a certificate reading: “…(The Panther family has) continued the tradition of ‘Comfort Food in a Fifties Time Capsule,’ making their establishment one of the most popular and famous restaurants in Iowa. The Burg is a favorite campaign stop and host of the only Coffee Bean Caucus, attracting local, state, national and international attention to Iowa politics” (Executive Department, Certificate of Recognition to Hamburg Inn No. 2 for 60 years of Great Food and Service, Governor Chester J. Culver, August 30, 2008).
Above this corner table (left) is a sign reading: "Table 6, The Hamburg Inn Presidential Table, Ronald Reagan, August 8, 1992."
“The ‘Burg’ has also been widely acclaimed as one of the best ‘greasy spoons’ in Iowa. It serves breakfast all day long and serves a wide variety of omelets sided by home fries…. One of the more famous Hamburg Inn concoctions is the "pie shake," a milkshake made by blending a scoop of ice cream, milk, and a slice of cake or pie” (Wikipedia).
One of the more famous omelets is the Zadar (ground beef, home fries, and American cheese), which (along with a sign on the wall) honors the 1989 cult-classic film Zadar! Cow From Hell, the first cinematic venture by the comic troupe Duck's Breath Mystery Theater (a group of four U of Iowa students). The film is about a man “attempting to make a low-budget horror film about a radioactive cow in his home state of Iowa and repeatedly being foiled by his lack of resources and the complications caused by his family's close proximity” (www.tcm.
com). How did I ever miss this one?
A lot has changed in the (Do you think I am going to tell you?) years since we left Iowa City. The “Burg” is no larger, but the interior seems to have been rearranged. I don’t remember the red counter running down the center of the room but Chuck does.
And weren’t there wood booths along each side wall? A few remain (photo below) but have been relegated to the back.
And the menu has expanded over time to include melts, grilled chicken sandwiches, garden burgers, and bison burgers. But no need for a menu. We wanted to relive the Hamburg Inn No. 2 of our memories. How accurate were our memories? Not so good as it turns out.
For Chuck, it would be the six-ounce cheeseburger, which comes with cole slaw and your choice of one side from a list that includes French fries, kettle potato chips, hash browns, home fries, potato salad, Greek pasta salad, cottage cheese, mac & cheese, pineapple, and mandarin oranges. Surprise—he ordered the French fries and substituted potato salad for the cole slaw. You’re surprised?
The potato salad was decent with lots of chopped egg and no pickle. (The German Iowa settlers wanted to add vinegar flavor to everything.) The crinkle fries were ordinary. But the burger was the reason for the visit. How did it measure up to our memories?
First, it looked too good. Over the years, I had remembered the “Burg's” burger being a large and very thin patty from having been squished on the flattop with a spatula. This step may have dispensed with any juice in the meat, but did leave the patty with a great char. Instead, this was a plump and juicy hand-formed patty made from fresh ground beef and served on a toasted Kaiser bun. (A Kaiser? Oh, the humanity.) This wasn’t the cheap eats from our college years. But one thing remained the same. The onions are still chopped instead of sliced so a snow storm of onion bits falls out every time you pick up the sandwich.
For me, this was the lunch I have dreamt of for years—the chance to eat again a Hamburg Inn No. 2 breaded pork tenderloin sandwich. The reigning king of pork tenderloins. The pork tenderloin against which all are measured. Did I want lettuce or tomato our server asked? Horrors. The breaded pork tenderloin is only served with onions, hamburger dills, and yellow mustard. And with the sandwich I ordered the potato salad and slaw. (The slaw contained almost no dressing so the portion was basically plain shredded cabbage.)
The sandwich arrived at the table. There it was dwarfing the bun—the tenderloin of my dreams.
Now there are two approaches to eating the pork tenderloin sandwich. You dive right in or you slowly—savoring every crispy bite—eat all of the pork extending from the bun. Only then do you proceed to eating the bun encased meat. As I am exercising the latter, I look up and see two gentlemen across the room watching me and laughing. Guys, you eat your tenderloin your way. I’ll eat mine my way.
But wait a minute. Something is wrong. This is dry. This is overcooked. I have dreamt of this sandwich for years? Maybe Thomas Wolfe was right. Maybe you can’t go home again.
There is a proverb of French origin attributed to the French novelist Jean Baptiste Alphonse Karr that says “The more things change, the more they stay the same.” No. The more things change, the more things change. And Hamburg Inn No.2 has changed.
Had I walked in here cold without years of embellished memories, I might feel differently. But Hamburg Inn No. 2 is no more than a 3.0 Addie restaurant.