Aug 5, 2018

Loose meat sandwiches made right at Montgomery’s, Grinnell, Iowa

One of my favorite Midwest dining traditions is the loose meat sandwich.  You may have also heard them referred to as a tavern sandwich, a steamburger, or a Maid-Rite because of the franchise loosely based off them. 

What exactly constitutes a loose meat sandwich?  Think of finely crumbled hamburger piled – or perhaps more appropriately scooped – onto a bun.  Its texture resembles a Sloppy Joe without the slop.  Then you top it with your preferred traditional hamburger accompaniments –onions (often sautéed with the meat) and mustard are almost mandatory, but often you can get ketchup, pickles and cheese as well. 

As a part of Americana, the history of the loose meat sandwich can be traced back to the early 1920s.  On a more personal level, I still recall as a youth eating at one of the first Maid-Rite sandwich shops in existence in Macomb, Ill.  That diner, which was located just of the town’s historic square, is long gone, but another one of the “original” Maid-Rite is still successfully operating in downtown Springfield (and it’s been on the National Register of Historic Places since 1984!). 

So, while good loose meat sandwiches are harder to find than they used to be, they’re still out there and appear to be making a nostalgic resurgence.  And one of the finest representations I recently found, appropriately enough, was in a restaurant that has been cranking out classic burgers, sandwiches, shakes and other diner fare in Grinnell, Iowa, since the 1930s – Montgomery’s Sandwich Shop.

Sure, the sign looks relatively new, but the atmosphere inside is decidedly old school.  The size of the diner is nice and cozy, with plenty of booths along the wall that absorb you right up when you sit in them.  If you prefer, you can straddle a stool at the counter and watch the servers make these … 

… the classic root beer float, served in a Mason jar-shaped glass. They haven’t forgotten how to make them at Montgomery’s. 

That should whet your appetite for their classic “All American” loose meat sandwich combo. It includes a quarter pound of hamburger, perfectly executed with the standard onions and mustard.  Thinly sliced fries on the side are what you reserve the ketchup for. 

Of course, loose meat sandwiches aren’t all they do well at Montgomery’s.  Every diner worth its reputation has a classic chili recipe, for instance. 

But after perusing their menu, I was most impressed by seeing they have their version of the Springfield, Ill, specialty, the horseshoe.  I also admire Montgomery’s for giving proper credit for where it originated.  Although I didn’t try one, I can imagine the addition of chopped green onions on top is a good one.  

As impressive and varied as the Montgomery’s menu is, if you’re a diner in Iowa, you better know how to make a killer tasty pork tenderloin sandwich – and it better be significantly bigger than the bun.  Montgomery’s version didn’t disappoint when I tried it on my second trip there. The lettuce and tomato are nice toppings you don’t always find on a pork tenderloin, but here it provided a great balance of flavors and texture.  I also found their perfectly deep fried thick-cut onion rings to be a great pairing with the tenderloin. 

Whether your craving is for a tenderloin, loose meat sandwich or some other greasy spoon sandwich specialty, Montgomery’s Sandwich Shop seems to have it.  If you’re in the Grinnell, Iowa area when that wave of foodie nostalgia hits you, make Montgomery’s your diner destination. 

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